15 Chapter 15: Music of the Romantic Era

Romantic Era Explored


When people talk about “Classical” music, they usually mean Western art music of any time period. But the Classical period was actually a very short era, basically the second half of the 18th century. Only two Classical-period composers are widely known: Mozart and Haydn.

The Romantic era produced many more composers whose names and music are still familiar and popular today: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, and Wagner are perhaps the most well-known, but there are plenty of others who may also be familiar, including Strauss, Verdi, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Puccini, and Mahler. Ludwig van Beethoven, possibly the most famous composer of all, is harder to place. His early works are from the Classical period and are clearly Classical in style. But his later music, including the majority of his most famous music, is just as clearly Romantic.

The term Romantic covers most of the music (and art and literature) of Western civilization from the 19th century (the 1800s). But there has been plenty of music written in the Romantic style in the 20th century (including many popular movie scores), and music isn’t considered Romantic just because it was written in the 19th century. The beginning of that century found plenty of composers (Rossini, for example) who were still writing Classical-sounding music. And by the end of the century, composers were turning away from Romanticism and searching for new idioms, including post-Romanticism, Impressionism, and early experiments in Modern music.

Background, Development, and Influence

Classical Roots

Sometimes a new style of music happens when composers forcefully reject the old style. Early Classical composers, for example, were determined to get away from what they considered the excesses of the Baroque style. Modern composers also were consciously trying to invent something new and very different.

But the composers of the Romantic era did not reject Classical music. In fact, they were consciously emulating the composers they considered to be the great classicists: Haydn, Mozart, and particularly Beethoven. They continued to write symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and operas, forms that were all popular with classical composers. They also kept the basic rules for these forms as well as keeping the rules of rhythm, melody, harmony, harmonic progression, tuning, and performance practice that were established in (or before) the Classical period.

The main difference between Classical and Romantic music came from attitudes toward these “rules.” In the 18th century, composers were primarily interested in forms, melodies, and harmonies that provided an easily audible structure for the music. In the first movement of a sonata, for example, each prescribed section would likely be where it belonged, of the appropriate length, and in the proper key. In the 19th century, the “rules” that provided this structure were more likely to be seen as boundaries and limits that needed to be explored, tested, and even defied. For example, the first movement of a Romantic sonata may contain all the expected sections as the music develops, but the composer might feel free to expand or contract some sections or to add unexpected interruptions between them. The harmonies in the movement might lead away from and back to the tonic just as expected, but they might wander much further afield than a Classical sonata would before making their final return.

Different Approaches to Romanticism

In fact, one could divide the main part of the Romantic era into two schools of composers. Some took a more conservative approach. Their music is clearly Romantic in style and feeling, but it also still clearly does not want to stray too far from the Classical rules. Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms are in this category.

Other composers felt more comfortable with pushing the boundaries of the acceptable. Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner were all progressives whose music challenged the audiences of their day.

Where to Go after Romanticism?

Perhaps it was inevitable, after decades of pushing at all limits to see what was musically acceptable, that the Romantic era would leave later composers with the question of what to explore or challenge next. Perhaps because there was no clear answer to this question (or several possible answers), many things were happening in music by the end of the Romantic era.

The period that includes the final decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th is sometimes called the post-Romantic era. This is the period when many composers, such as Jean Sibelius, Bela Bartok, and Ralph Vaughan-Williams, concentrated on the traditions of their own countries, producing strongly nationalistic music. Others, such as Mahler and Strauss, were taking Romantic musical techniques to their utmost reasonable limits. In France, Debussy and Ravel were composing pieces that some listeners felt were the musical equivalent of impressionistic paintings. Impressionism and some other -isms, such as Stravinsky’s primitivism, still had some basis in tonality; but others, such as serialism, rejected tonality and the Classical-Romantic tradition completely, believing that it had produced all that it could. In the early 20th century, these Modernists eventually came to dominate the art music tradition. Though the sounds and ideals of Romanticism continued to inspire some composers, the Romantic period was essentially over by the beginning of the 20th century.

Historical Background

Music doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is affected by other things that are going on in society; ideas, attitudes, discoveries, inventions, and historical events may affect the music of the times.

For example, the “Industrial Revolution” was gaining steam throughout the 19th century. This had a very practical effect on music: there were major improvements in the mechanical valves and keys that most woodwinds and brass instruments depend on. The new, improved instruments could be played more easily and reliably and often had a bigger, fuller, better-tuned sound. Strings and keyboard instruments dominated the music of the Baroque and Classical periods, with small groups of winds added for color. As the 19th century progressed and wind instruments improved, more and more winds were added to the orchestra, and their parts became more and more difficult, interesting, and important. Improvements in the mechanics of the piano also helped it usurp the position of the harpsichord to become the instrument that to many people is the symbol of Romantic music.

Another social development that had an effect on music was the rise of the middle class. Classical composers lived on the patronage of the aristocracy; their audience was generally small, upper-class, and knowledgeable about music. The Romantic composer, on the other hand, was often writing for public concerts and festivals, with large audiences of paying customers who had not necessarily had any music lessons. In fact, the 19th century saw the first “pop star”–type stage personalities. Performers like Paganini and Liszt were the Elvis Presleys of their day.

Romantic Music as an Idea

But perhaps the greatest effect that society can have on an art is in the realm of ideas.

The music of the Classical period reflected the artistic and intellectual ideals of its time. Form was important, providing order and boundaries. Music was seen as an abstract art, universal in its beauty and appeal, above the pettinesses and imperfections of everyday life. It reflected, in many ways, the attitudes of the educated and the aristocratic of the “Enlightenment” era. Classical music may sound happy or sad, but even the emotions stay within acceptable boundaries.

Romantic-era composers kept the forms of Classical music, but the Romantic composer did not feel constrained by form. Breaking through boundaries was now an honorable goal shared by the scientist, the inventor, and the political liberator. Music was no longer universal; it was deeply personal and sometimes nationalistic. The personal sufferings and triumphs of the composer could be reflected in stormy music that might even place a higher value on emotion than on beauty. Music was not just happy or sad; it could be wildly joyous, terrified, despairing, or filled with deep longings.

It was also more acceptable for music to clearly be from a particular place. Audiences of many eras enjoyed an opera set in a distant country, complete with the composer’s version of exotic-sounding music. But many 19th-century composers (including Weber, Wagner, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, Dvořák, Sibelius, and Albeniz) used folk tunes and other aspects of the musical traditions of their own countries to appeal to their public. Much of this nationalistic music was produced in the post-Romantic period, in the late 19th century; in fact, the composers best known for folk-inspired classical music in England (Holst and Vaughan Williams) and the U.S. (Ives, Copland, and Gershwin) were 20th-century composers who composed in Romantic, post-Romantic, or Neoclassical styles instead of embracing the more severe Modernist styles.

Music can also be specific by having a “program.” Program music is music that, without words, tells a story or describes a scene. Richard Strauss’s tone poems are perhaps the best-known works in this category, but program music has remained popular with many composers through the 20th century. Again, unlike the abstract, universal music of the Classical composers, Romantic-era program music tried to use music to describe or evoke specific places, people, and ideas. And again, with program music, those Classical rules became less important. The form of the music was chosen to fit with the program (the story or idea), and if it was necessary at some point to choose sticking more closely to the form or to the program, the program usually won.

As mentioned above, post-Romantic composers felt ever freer to experiment and break the established rules for form, melody, and harmony. Many modern composers have, in fact, gone so far that the average listener again finds it difficult to follow. Romantic-style music, on the other hand, with its emphasis on emotions and its balance of following and breaking the musical “rules,” still finds a wide audience.

Art Song

Art songs are not new to the Romantic era. Many composers of earlier historical periods composed songs that would fit the definition of art song as listed on this page. We study art songs now because they were such an integral part of the Romantic repertoire, particularly that of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Because so many art songs in a Romantic style were composed by German composers, we often use the German word for songs, “lieder,” when studying this genre.


An art song is a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment, and usually in the classical tradition. By extension, the term “art song” is used to refer to the genre of such songs. An art song is most often a musical setting of an independent poem or text “intended for the concert repertory” “as part of a recital or other relatively formal social occasion.”

Art Song Characteristics

While many pieces of vocal music are easily recognized as art songs, others are more difficult to categorize. For example, a wordless vocalise written by a classical composer is sometimes considered an art song and sometimes not.

Other factors help define art songs:

  • Songs that are part of a staged work (such as an opera or a musical) are not usually considered art songs. However, some Baroque arias that “appear with great frequency in recital performance” are now included in the art song repertoire.
  • Songs with instruments besides piano and/or other singers are referred to as “vocal chamber music” and are usually not considered art songs.
  • Songs originally written for voice and orchestra are called “orchestral songs” and are not usually considered art songs, unless their original version was for solo voice and piano.
  • Folk songs are generally not considered art songs unless they are concert arrangements with piano accompaniment written by a specific composer. Several examples of these songs include Aaron Copland’s two volumes of Old American Songs, the Folksong arrangements by Benjamin Britten, and the Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) by Manuel de Falla.
  • There is no agreement regarding sacred songs. Many song settings of biblical or sacred texts were composed for the concert stage and not for religious services; these are widely known as art songs (for example, the Vierernste Gesange by Johannes Brahms). Other sacred songs may or may not be considered art songs.
  • A group of art songs composed to be performed in a group to form a narrative or dramatic whole is called a song cycle.

Languages and Nationalities

Art songs have been composed in many languages and are known by several names. The German tradition of art song composition is perhaps the most prominent one; it is known as Lieder. In France, the term Melodie distinguishes art songs from other French vocal pieces referred to as chansons. The Spanish Cancian and the Italian Canzone refer to songs generally and not specifically to art songs.

Art Song Formal Design

The composer’s musical language and interpretation of the text often dictate the formal design of an art song. If all of the poem’s verses are sung to the same music, the song is strophic. Arrangements of folk songs are often strophic, and “there are exceptional cases in which the musical repetition provides dramatic irony for the changing text, or where an almost hypnotic monotony is desired.” Several of the songs in Schubert’s Die schone Mullerin are good examples of this. If the vocal melody remains the same but the accompaniment changes under it for each verse, the piece is called a “modified strophic” song.

In contrast, songs in which “each section of the text receives fresh music” are called through-composed. Some through-composed works have some repetition of musical material in them.

Many art songs use some version of the ABA form (also known as “song form”), with a beginning musical section, a contrasting middle section, and a return to the first section’s music.

Art Song Performance and Performers

Performance of art songs in recital requires some special skills for both the singer and pianist. The degree of intimacy “seldom equaled in other kinds of music” requires that the two performers “communicate to the audience the most subtle and evanescent emotions as expressed in the poem and music.” The two performers must agree on all aspects of the performance to create a unified partnership, making art song performance one of the “most sensitive type(s) of collaboration.”

Even though classical vocalists generally embark on successful performing careers as soloists by seeking out opera engagements, a number of today’s most prominent singers have built their careers primarily by singing art songs, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Quasthoff, Ian Bostridge, Matthias Goerne, Susan Graham, and Elly Ameling.

Pianists, too, have specialized in playing art songs with great singers. Gerald Moore, Graham Johnson, and Martin Katz are three such pianists who have specialized in accompanying art song performances.

Prominent Composers of Art Songs


  • John Dowland
  • Thomas Campion
  • Hubert Parry
  • Henry Purcell
  • Frederick Delius
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Roger Quilter
  • John Ireland
  • Ivor Gurney
  • Peter Warlock
  • Michael Head
  • Gerald Finzi
  • Benjamin Britten
  • Morfydd Llwyn Owen
  • Michael Tippett
  • Ian Venables
  • Judith Weir
  • George Butterworth
  • Francis George Scott


  • Amy Beach
  • Arthur Farwell
  • Charles Ives
  • Charles Griffes
  • Ernst Bacon
  • John Jacob Niles
  • John Woods Duke
  • Ned Rorem
  • Richard Faith
  • Samuel Barber
  • Aaron Copland
  • Lee Hoiby
  • William Bolcom
  • Daron Hagen
  • Richard Hundley
  • Emma Lou Diemer

Austrian and German

  • Joseph Haydn
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Franz Schubert
  • Hugo Wolf
  • Gustav Mahler
  • Alban Berg
  • Arnold Schoenberg
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  • Viktor Ullmann
  • Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Johann Carl Gottfried Loewe
  • Fanny Mendelssohn
  • Felix Mendelssohn
  • Robert Schumann
  • Clara Schumann
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Richard Strauss
  • Hanns Eisler
  • Kurt Weill


  • Hector Berlioz
  • Charles Gounod
  • Pauline Viardot
  • César Franck
  • Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Georges Bizet
  • Emmanuel Chabrier
  • Henri Duparc
  • Jules Massenet
  • Gabriel Fauré
  • Claude Debussy
  • Erik Satie
  • Albert Roussel
  • Maurice Ravel
  • Jules Massenet
  • Darius Milhaud
  • Reynaldo Hahn
  • Francis Poulenc
  • Olivier Messiaen


19th-Century Composers

  • Francisco Asenjo Barbieri
  • Raman Carnicery Batlle
  • Ruperto Chapa
  • Antonio de la Cruz
  • Manuel Fernandez Caballero
  • Manuel Garcia
  • Sebastian de Iradier
  • Josa Lean
  • Cristóbal Oudrid
  • Antonio Reparaz
  • Emilio Serrano y Ruiz
  • Fernando Sor
  • Joaquín Valverde
  • Amadeo Vives

20th-Century Composers

  • Enrique Granados
  • Manuel de Falla
  • Joaquín Rodrigo
  • Joaquín Turina


  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • Gioachino Rossini
  • Gaetano Donizetti
  • Vincenzo Bellini
  • Giuseppe Verdi
  • Amilcare Ponchielli
  • Paolo Tosti
  • Ottorino Respighi
  • Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
  • Luciano Berio
  • Lorenzo Ferrero

Eastern European

  • Franz Liszt—Hungary (nearly all his art song settings are of texts in non-Hungarian European languages, such as French and German)
  • Antonín Dvořák—Bohemia
  • Leoš Janáček—Bohemia (Czechoslovakia)
  • Béla Bartók—Hungary
  • Zoltán Kodály—Hungary
  • Frédéric Chopin—Poland
  • Stanisław Moniuszko—Poland


  • Edvard Grieg—Norway (set German as well as Norse and Danish poetry)
  • Jean Sibelius—Finland (set both Finnish and Swedish)
  • Yrjö Kilpinen—Finland
  • Wilhelm Stenhammar—Sweden
  • Hugo Alfvén—Sweden
  • Carl Nielsen—Denmark


  • Mikhail Glinka
  • Alexander Borodin
  • Caesar Cui
  • Nikolai Medtner
  • Modest Mussorgsky
  • Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
  • Alexander Glazunov
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff
  • Sergei Prokofiev
  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Dmitri Shostakovich


  • Vasyl Barvinsky
  • Stanyslav Lyudkevych
  • Mykola Lysenko
  • Nestor Nyzhankivsky
  • Ostap Nyzhankivsky
  • Denys Sichynsky
  • Myroslav Skoryk
  • Ihor Sonevytsky
  • Yakiv Stepovy
  • Kyrylo Stetsenko



  • Marco Cahulogan
  • Carlo Roberto Quijano
  • Nicanor Abelardo
  • Juan dela Cruz


  • Jellmar Ponticha
  • Stephanus Le Roux Marais

Franz Schubert

Schubert’s life seems to follow, tragically, the cliché of the Romantic artist: a suffering composer who languishes in obscurity, his genius only appreciated after his untimely death. While Schubert did enjoy the respect of a close circle of friends, his music was not widely received during his lifetime. Though we study him in our Romantic module, Schubert does not fit neatly into the Romantic period. Like Beethoven, Schubert is a transitional figure. Some of his music, particularly his earlier instrumental compositions, tends toward a more classical approach. However, the melodic and harmonic innovation in his art songs and later instrumental works sit more firmly in the Romantic tradition. Because his art songs are so clearly Romantic in their inception, and because art songs make up the majority of his compositions, we study him as part of the Romantic era.


Oil painting of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder (1875), made from his own 1825 watercolor portrait.
Figure 1. Oil painting of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder (1875), made from his own 1825 watercolor portrait.

Franz Peter Schubert (31 January 1797–19 November 1828) was an Austrian composer.

Schubert died at 31 but was extremely prolific during his lifetime. His output consists of over six hundred secular vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music, and a large body of chamber and piano music. Appreciation of his music while he was alive was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased significantly in the decades following his death. Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and other 19th-century composers discovered and championed his works. Today, Schubert is ranked among the greatest composers of the late Classical era and early Romantic era and is one of the most frequently performed composers of the early 19th century.


Schubert was remarkably prolific, writing over 1,500 works in his short career. The largest number of these are songs for solo voice and piano (over 600). He also composed a considerable number of secular works for two or more voices—namely, part songs, choruses, and cantatas. He completed eight orchestral overtures and seven complete symphonies, in addition to fragments of six others. While he composed no concertos, he did write three concertante works for violin and orchestra. There is a large body of music for solo piano, including fourteen complete sonatas, numerous miscellaneous works and many short dances. There is also a relatively large set of works for piano duet. There are over fifty chamber works, including some fragmentary works. His sacred output includes seven masses, one oratorio and one requiem, among other mass movements and numerous smaller compositions. He completed only eleven of his twenty stage works.

Style and Reception

Franz Schubert Memorial by Carl Kundmann in Vienna’s Stadtpark
Figure 2. Franz Schubert Memorial by Carl Kundmann in Vienna’s Stadtpark.

In July 1947, the 20th-century composer Ernst Krenek discussed Schubert’s style, abashedly admitting that he had at first “shared the wide-spread opinion that Schubert was a lucky inventor of pleasing tunes . . . lacking the dramatic power and searching intelligence which distinguished such ‘real’ masters as J. S. Bach or Beethoven.” Krenek wrote that he reached a completely different assessment after close study of Schubert’s pieces at the urging of friend and fellow composer Eduard Erdmann. Krenek pointed to the piano sonatas as giving “ample evidence that [Schubert] was much more than an easy-going tune-smith who did not know, and did not care, about the craft of composition.” Each sonata then in print, according to Krenek, exhibited “a great wealth of technical finesse” and revealed Schubert as “far from satisfied with pouring his charming ideas into conventional molds; on the contrary he was a thinking artist with a keen appetite for experimentation.”

That “appetite for experimentation” manifests itself repeatedly in Schubert’s output in a wide variety of forms and genres, including opera, liturgical music, chamber and solo piano music, and symphonic works. Perhaps most familiarly, his adventurousness manifests itself as a notably original sense of modulation, as in the second movement of the String Quintet (D 956), where he modulates from E major, through F minor, to reach the tonic key of E major. It also appears in unusual choices of instrumentation, as in the Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano (D 821), or the unconventional scoring of the Trout Quintet (D 667).

While he was clearly influenced by the Classical sonata forms of Beethoven and Mozart (his early works, among them notably the 5th Symphony, are particularly Mozart), his formal structures and his developments tend to give the impression more of melodic development than of harmonic drama. This combination of Classical form and long-breathed Romantic melody sometimes lends them a discursive style: his Great C major Symphony was described by Robert Schumann as running to “heavenly lengths.” His harmonic innovations include movements in which the first section ends in the key of the subdominant rather than the dominant (as in the last movement of the Trout Quintet). Schubert’s practice here was a forerunner of the common Romantic technique of relaxing, rather than raising, tension in the middle of a movement, with final resolution postponed to the very end.

Listen: Sonata

Please listen to Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano, D 821, performed by Hans Goldstein (cello) and Clinton Adams (piano).

I. Allegro Moderato

II. Adagio and III. Allegretto

It was in the genre of the Lied, however, that Schubert made his most indelible mark. Leon Plantinga remarks, “In his more than six hundred Lieder he explored and expanded the potentialities of the genre as no composer before him.” Prior to Schubert’s influence, Lieder tended toward a strophic, syllabic treatment of text, evoking the folksong qualities engendered by the stirrings of Romantic nationalism. Among Schubert’s treatments of the poetry of Goethe, his settings of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (D 118) and “Der Erlkönig” (D 328) are particularly striking for their dramatic content, forward-looking uses of harmony, and use of eloquent pictorial keyboard figurations, such as the depiction of the spinning wheel and treadle in the piano in “Gretchen” and the furious and ceaseless gallop in “Erlkönig.” He composed music using the poems of a myriad of poets, with Goethe, Mayrhofer, and Schiller being the top three most frequent, and others like Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Rückert, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, among many others. Also of particular note are his two song cycles on the poems of Wilhelm Müller, “Die schone Mullerin” and “Winterreise,” which helped to establish the genre and its potential for musical, poetic, and almost operatic dramatic narrative. His last song cycle published in 1828 after his death, “Schwanengesang,” is also an innovative contribution to German lieder literature, as it features poems by different poets—namely, Ludwig Rellstab, Heine, and Johann Gabriel Seidl. The Wiener Theaterzeitung, writing about “Winterreise” at the time, commented that it was a work that “none can sing or hear without being deeply moved.” Antonín Dvořák wrote in 1894 that Schubert, whom he considered one of the truly great composers, was clearly influential on shorter works, especially Lieder and shorter piano works: “The tendency of the romantic school has been toward short forms, and although Weber helped to show the way, to Schubert belongs the chief credit of originating the short models of piano forte pieces which the romantic school has preferably cultivated. [. . .] Schubert created a new epoch with the Lied. [. . .] All other songwriters have followed in his footsteps.”

Schubert’s compositional style progressed rapidly throughout his short life. A feeling of regret for the loss of potential masterpieces caused by his early death at age 31 was expressed in the epitaph on his large tombstone written by his friend the poet Franz Grillparzer: “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.” Some have disagreed with this early view, arguing that Schubert in his lifetime did produce enough masterpieces not to be limited to the image of an unfulfilled promise. This is in particular the opinion of pianists, including Alfred Brendel, who dryly billed the Grillparzer epitaph as “inappropriate.”

Schubert’s chamber music continues to be popular. In a poll, the results of which were announced in October 2008, the ABC in Australia found that Schubert’s chamber works dominated the field, with the Trout Quintet coming first, followed by two of his other works.

The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, who ranked Schubert as the fourth greatest composer, wrote of him,

You have to love the guy, who died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius. For his hundreds of songs alone—including the haunting cycle Winterreise, which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences—Schubert is central to our concert life. . . . Schubert’s first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the Unfinished and especially the Great C major Symphony are astonishing. The latter one paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler.

If you’d like a deeper understanding of the life experiences of Franz Schubert, you can read the entirety of the Wikipedia article on him from which this has been drawn.


Please read this page on our first art song, “Der Erlkönig.” This piece is one of the best-known lieder of the Romantic era and certainly one of Schubert’s most famous compositions. It is through-composed in form, and the dramatic text is heightened by the fact that singers generally give the four characters featured in the poem slightly different tone qualities, a bit like an actor playing multiple parts. As the music is so expressive of the poem’s text, I’d encourage you to listen to the piece on the playlist as soon as you’ve read the article.


"Erlkönig" illustration, Moritz von Schwind
Figure 1. “Erlknig” illustration, Moritz von Schwind.

Erlknig (also called “Der Erlknig) is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It depicts the death of a child assailed by a supernatural being, the Erlking or “Erlknig” (suggesting the literal translation “alder king,” but see below). It was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel entitled Die Fischerin.

The poem has been used as the text for Lieder (art songs for voice and piano) by many classical composers.


An anxious young boy is being carried home at night by his father on horseback. To what sort of home is not spelled out; German Hof has a rather broad meaning of “yard,” “courtyard,” “farm,” or (royal) “court.” The lack of specificity of the father’s social position allows the reader to imagine the details.

As the poem unfolds, the son seems to see and hear beings his father does not; the reader cannot know if the father is indeed aware of the presence, but he chooses to comfort his son, asserting reassuringly naturalistic explanations for what the child sees—a wisp of fog, rustling leaves, shimmering willows. Finally the child shrieks that he has been attacked. The father makes faster for the Hof. There he recognizes that the boy is dead.


Original German Literal translation Adaptation

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”—
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?”—
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”

“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.”—

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”—
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren blättern säuselt der Wind.”—

“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”—

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”—
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’ es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”—

“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt.”—
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
ErlkÖnig hat mir ein Leids getan!”—

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”

“You dear child, come, go with me!
(Very) beautiful games I play with you;
many a colorful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.”

“My father, my father, and hearest you not,
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing.”

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so gray.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”

“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
’Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
’Tis the aged gray willows deceiving thy sight.”

“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,—
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

The Legend

The story of the Erlkönig derives from the traditional Danish ballad Elveskud: Goethe’s poem was inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder’s translation of a variant of the ballad (Danmarks gamle Folkeviser 47B, from Peter Syv’s 1695 edition) into German as “Erlkönigs Tochter” (“The Erl-king’s Daughter”) in his collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (published 1778). Goethe’s poem then took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the Erlking. Niels Gade’s cantata Elverskud opus 30 (1854, text by Chr. K. F. Molbech) was published in translation as Erlkönigs Tochter.

The Erlkönig’s nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as “Alder King” rather than its common English translation, “Elf King” (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danish elverkonge, which does mean “king of the elves.”

In the original Scandinavian version of the tale, the antagonist was the Erlkönig’s daughter rather than the Erlkönig himself; the female elves or elvermøer sought to ensnare human beings to satisfy their desire, jealousy, and lust for revenge.

Settings to Music

The poem has often been set to music with Franz Schubert’s rendition, his Opus 1 (D. 328), being the best known. Other notable settings are by members of Goethe’s circle, including the actress Corona Schröter (1782), Andreas Romberg (1793), Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1794), and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1797). Beethoven attempted to set it to music but abandoned the effort; his sketch, however, was complete enough to be published in a completion by Reinhold Becker (1897). A few other 19th-century versions are those by Václav Tomášek (1815), Carl Loewe (1818), Ludwig Spohr (1856, with obbligato violin), and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (Polyphonic Studies for Solo Violin). The 21st-century examples are pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s “Etude No. 8 (after Goethe)” for solo piano, based on “Erlkönig,” and German rock singer Achim Reichel on his album Wilder Wassermann (2002).

The Franz Schubert Composition

Listen: Erlkönig

Please listen to the following audio file to hear Ernestine Schumann-Heink perform.

Franz Schubert composed his Lied, “Der Erlkönig,” for solo voice and piano in 1815, setting text from Goethe’s poem. Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in 1821 as his Opus 1; it was cataloged by Otto Erich Deutsch as D. 328 in his 1951 catalog of Schubert’s works. The song was first performed in concert on 1 December 1820 at a private gathering in Vienna and received its public premiere on 7 March 1821 at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor.

The four characters in the song—narrator, father, son, and the Erlking—are usually all sung by a single vocalist; occasionally, however, the work is performed by four individual vocalists (or three, with one taking the parts of both the narrator and the Erlking). Schubert placed each character largely in a different vocal range, and each has his own rhythmic nuances; in addition, most singers endeavor to use a different vocal coloration for each part. The piece modulates frequently, although each character changes between minor or major mode depending how each character intends to interact with the other characters.

  1. The Narrator lies in the middle range and begins in the minor mode.
  2. The Father lies in the lower range and sings in both minor and major mode.
  3. The Son lies in a higher range, also in the minor mode.
  4. The Erlking’s vocal line, in a variety of major keys, undulates up and down to arpeggiated accompaniment, providing the only break from the ostinato bass triplets in the accompaniment until the boy’s death. When the Erlking first tries to take the Son with him, he sings in C major. When it transitions from the Erlking to the Son, the modulation occurs, and the Son sings in g minor. The Erlking’s lines are typically sung in a softer dynamic in order to contribute to a different color of sound than that which is used previously. Schubert marked it pianissimo in the manuscript to show that the color needed to change.

A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats.

Der Erlkönig” starts with the piano rapidly playing triplets to create a sense of urgency and simulate the horse’s galloping. The left hand of the piano part introduces a low-register leitmotif composed of successive triplets. The right hand consists of triplets throughout the whole piece, up until the last three bars. The constant triplets drive forward the frequent modulations of the peace as it switches between the characters. This leitmotif, dark and ominous, is directly associated with the Erlkönig and recurs throughout the piece. These motifs continue throughout. As the piece continues, each of the son’s pleas become louder and higher in pitch than the last. Near the end of the piece, the music quickens and then slows as the father spurs his horse to go faster and then arrives at his destination. The absence of the piano creates multiple effects on the text and music. The silence draws attention to the dramatic text and amplifies the immense loss and sorrow caused by the son’s death. This silence from the piano also delivers the shock experienced by the father upon the realization that he has just lost his son to the elf king, despite desperately fighting to save the son from the elf kings grasp. The piece is regarded as extremely challenging to perform due to the multiple characters the vocalist is required to portray, as well as its difficult accompaniment, involving rapidly repeated chords and octaves that contribute to the drama and urgency of the piece.

Der Erlkönig is a through-composed piece, meaning that with each line of text, there is new music. Although the melodic motives recur, the harmonic structure is constantly changing, and the piece modulates within characters. The elf king remains mainly in major mode due to the fact that he is trying to seduce the son into giving up on life. Using a major mode creates an effect where the elf king is able to portray a warm and inviting aura in order to convince the son that the afterlife promises great pleasures and fortunes. The son always starts singing in the minor mode and usually stays in it for his whole line. This is used to represent his fear of the elf king. Every time he sings the famous line “Mein Vater,” he sings it one step higher in each verse, starting first at a D and going up to an F on his final line. This indicates his urgency in trying to get his father to believe him as the elf king gets closer. For most of the Father’s lines, they begin in minor and end in major as he tries to reassure his son by providing rational explanations to his son’s hallucinations and dismissing the elf king. The constant in major and minor for the father may also represent the constant struggle and loss of control as he tries to save his son from the elf king’s persuasion.

The rhythm of the piano accompaniment also changes within the characters. The first time the elf king sings in measure 57, the galloping motive disappears. However, when the elf king sings again in measure 87, the piano accompaniment is arpeggiating rather than playing chords. The disappearance of the galloping motive is also symbolic of the son’s hallucinatory state.

Der Erlkönig has been transcribed for various settings: for solo piano by Franz Liszt; for solo voice and orchestra by Hector Berlioz; and for solo violin by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.

The Carl Lowe Composition

Carl Loewe’s setting was published as Op. 1, No. 3 and composed in 1817–18, in the lifetime of the poem’s author and also of Schubert, whose version Loewe did not then know. Collected with it were Op. 1, No. 1, Edward (1818; a translation of the Scottish ballad) and No. 2, Der Wirthin Töchterlein (1823; The Innkeeper’s Daughter), a poem of Ludwig Uhland. Inspired by a German translation of Scottish border ballads, Loewe set several poems with an elvish theme; but although all three of Op. 1 are concerned with untimely death, in this set only the “Erlkönig” has the supernatural element.

Loewe’s accompaniment is in semiquaver groups of six in nine-eight time and marked Geschwind (fast). The vocal line evokes the galloping effect by repeated figures of crotchet and quaver, or sometimes three quavers, overlying the binary tremolo of the semiquavers in the piano. In addition to an unusual sense of motion, this creates a very flexible template for the stresses in the words to fall correctly within the rhythmic structure.

Loewe’s version is less melodic than Schubert’s, with an insistent, repetitive harmonic structure between the opening minor key and answering phrases in the major key of the dominant, which have a stark quality owing to their unusual relationship to the home key. The narrator’s phrases are echoed by the voices of father and son, the father taking up the deeper, rising phrase, and the son a lightly undulating, answering theme around the dominant fifth. These two themes also evoke the rising and moaning of the wind. The Elf king, who is always heard pianissimo, does not sing melodies but instead delivers insubstantial rising arpeggios that outline a single major chord (that of the home key), which sounds simultaneously on the piano in una corda tremolo. Only with his final threatening word, “Gewalt,” does he depart from this chord. Loews implication is that the Erlking has no substance but merely exists in the child’s fevered imagination. As the piece progresses, the first in the groups of three quavers are dotted to create a breathless pace, which then forms a bass figure in the piano driving through to the final crisis. The last words, war tot, leap from the lower dominant to the sharpened third of the home key, this time not to the major but to a diminished chord, which settles chromatically through the home key in the major and then to the minor.

Robert Schumann

The early Romantic composer Robert Schumann was, like Schubert, a prolific composer of art songs. Also like Schubert, his life was tragically cut short, though unlike the younger composer, Robert enjoyed a good deal more success and recognition. This short introduction is a good summary of the composer’s career. If you’d like to know more, I’d certainly encourage you to read the rest of the article here. The article includes links to additional pieces not on our listening exam. It also tells the story of Robert and Clara Schumann, which is one of the great love stories of music history. Clara Schumann was as formidable a musician as her husband, and as a performer (concert pianist), she was quite famous. She and her husband were both very influential in the life of one of the other composers we will study in this period: Johannes Brahms.

Robert Schumann in an 1850 daguerreotype
Figure 1. Robert Schumann in an 1850 daguerreotype.

Robert Schumann (8 June 1810–29 July 1856) was a German composer and influential music critic. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. He had been assured by his teacher Friedrich Wieck that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury ended this dream. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing.

Schumann’s published compositions were written exclusively for the piano until 1840; he later composed works for piano and orchestra; many Lieder (songs for voice and piano); four symphonies; an opera; and other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. Works such as Kinderszenen, Album die Jugend, Blumenstack, the Sonatas, and Albumbltter are among his most famous. His writings about music appeared mostly in the Neue Zeitschrift Musik (New Journal for Music), a Leipzig-based publication that he jointly founded.

In 1840, against the wishes of her father, Schumann married Friedrich Wieck’s daughter Clara following a long and acrimonious legal battle, which found in favor of Clara and Robert. Clara also composed music and had a considerable concert career as a pianist, the earnings from which formed a substantial part of her father’s fortune.

Schumann suffered from a lifelong mental disorder, first manifesting itself in 1833 as a severe melancholic depressive episode, which recurred several times alternating with phases of “exaltation” and increasingly also delusional ideas of being poisoned or threatened with metallic items. After a suicide attempt in 1854, Schumann was admitted to a mental asylum, at his own request, in Endenich near Bonn. Diagnosed with “psychotic melancholia,” Schumann died two years later in 1856 without having recovered from his mental illness.

“Du Ring an Meinem Finger” is part of a larger cycle of songs called Frauenliebe und Leben. You can download this scan of a public domain score to the song cycle if you would like to review the printed music.


Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) is a cycle of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso written in 1830. They describe the course of a woman’s love for her man, from her point of view, from first meeting, through marriage, to his death, and after. Selections were set to music as a song-cycle by masters of German Lied—namely, Carl Loewe, Franz Paul Lachner, and Robert Schumann. The setting by Schumann (his opus 42) is now the most widely known.

Schumann’s Cycle

Schumann wrote his setting in 1840, a year in which he wrote so many lieder (including three other song cycles: Liederkreis Op. 24 and Op. 39, Dichterliebe) that it is known as his “year of song.” There are eight poems in his cycle, together telling a story from the protagonist first meeting her love, through their marriage, to his death. They are:

  1. “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (“Since I Saw Him”)
  2. “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” (“He, the Noblest of All”)
  3. “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” (“I Cannot Grasp or Believe It”)
  4. “Du Ring an meinem Finger” (“You Ring Upon My Finger”)
  5. “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” (“Help Me, Sisters”)
  6. “Süßer Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an” (“Sweet Friend, You Gaze”)
  7. “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust” (“At My Heart, At My Breast”)
  8. “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (“Now You Have Caused Me Pain for the First Time”)

Schumann’s choice of text was very probably inspired in part by events in his personal life. He had been courting Clara Wieck but had failed to get her father’s permission to marry her. In 1840, after a legal battle to make such permission unnecessary, he finally married her.

The songs in this cycle are notable for the fact that the piano has a remarkable independence from the voice. Breaking away from the Schubertian ideal, Schumann has the piano contain the mood of the song in its totality. Another notable characteristic is the cycle’s cyclic structure, in which the last movement repeats the theme of the first.

“Du Ring an meinem Finger” from Frauenliebe und Leben

Composer: Robert Schumann
Tempo: Score markings indicate “intimate” (suggesting slow tempo) with the second half marked “gradually faster”
Voice part: Mezzo-soprano or soprano
Form: Rondo

German English
Du Ring an meinem Finger, You ring on my finger
Mein goldenes Ringelein, My little golden ring,
Ich drücke dich fromm an die Lippen, I press you with devotion to my lips
Dich fromm an das Herze mein. With devotion to my heart.
Ich hatt ihn ausgeträumt, I had dreamed it
Der Kindheit friedlich schönen Traum, The beautiful, peaceful dream of childhood
Ich fand allein mich, verloren I found myself alone, lost
Im öden, unendlichen Raum. In the barren, infinite space.
Du Ring an meinem Finger You ring on my finger
Da hast du mich erst belehrt, You have first taught me,
Hast meinem Blick erschlossen Have opened my eyes
Des Lebens unendlichen, tiefen Wert. Life’s infinite, deep value.
Ich will ihm dienen, ihm leben, I want to serve him, live for him
Ihm angehören ganz, Belong to him completely
Hin selber mich geben und finden Giving and finding myself
Verklärt mich in seinem Glanz. Transformed in his glory.
Du Ring an meinem Finger, You ring on my finger
Mein goldenes Ringelein, My little golden ring,
Ich drücke dich fromm an die Lippen I press you with devotion to my lips
Dich fromm an das Herze mein. With devotion to my heart.

The Piano

This seems like a good time to examine the history of the piano. The pianos played by the composers of the Romantic era had evolved considerably from those played by Mozart and even Beethoven. This page will give you a sense of that historical development.

History of the Piano

The piano was founded on earlier technological innovations that date back to the Middle Ages. By the early Baroque, there were two primary stringed keyboard instruments: the clavichord and the harpsichord. The invention of the piano is credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, Italy, who was an expert harpsichord maker and was well acquainted with the body of knowledge on stringed keyboard instruments. The instruments of Cristofori’s day possessed individual strengths and weaknesses. The clavichord allowed expressive control of the sound volume and sustain but was too quiet for large performances. The harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound but had little expressive control over each note. These tonal differences were due to the mechanisms of the two instruments. In a clavichord, the strings are struck by tangents, while in a harpsichord, they are plucked by quills. The piano was probably formed as an attempt to combine loudness with control, avoiding the trade-offs of available instruments.

Cristofori’s great success was solving, with no prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it (as a tangent remains in contact with a clavichord string) because this would damp the sound. Moreover, the hammer must return to its rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori’s piano action was a model for the many approaches to piano actions that followed. His early instruments were made with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano, but much louder and with more sustain in comparison to the clavichord—the only previous keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance via the keyboard.

Cristofori’s new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it in 1711, including a diagram of the mechanism. This article was widely distributed, and most of the next generation of piano builders started their work due to reading it. One of these builders was the organ builder Gottfried Silbermann, who showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s. Bach did not like it at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. Although this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the criticism was apparently heeded. Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747 and even served as an agent in selling Silbermann’s pianos.

Piano-making flourished in late 18th-century Vienna. Viennese-style pianos were built with wood frames, two strings per note, and had leather-covered hammers. Some of these Viennese pianos had the opposite coloring of modern-day pianos; the natural keys were black and the accidental keys white. It was for such instruments that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance of his music. The pianos of Mozart’s day had a softer, more ethereal tone than today’s pianos, with less sustaining power. The term fortepiano is now used to distinguish the 18th-century instrument from later pianos.

In the period lasting from about 1790 to 1860, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes that led to the modern form of the instrument. This revolution was in response to a preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound and made possible by the ongoing Industrial Revolution with resources such as high-quality piano wire for strings and precision casting for the production of iron frames. Over time, the range of the piano was also increased from the five octaves of Mozart’s day to the 7⅓ or more octaves found on modern pianos. This growth can be heard over the course of Beethoven’s career. Beethoven’s later piano works feature a wider range of pitches than earlier works as the instrument’s pitch range grew. To understand the impact of this expansion more clearly, a numeric illustration may be helpful. A five-octave piano would have roughly 60 keys, while today’s pianos generally feature 88.

Technical innovations continued to be added to the piano as various instrument makers experimented with ways to improve the instrument’s mechanical function and tonal expression. By the late 19th century, the piano had evolved into the powerful 88-key instrument we recognize today. It is important to remember that much of the music of the Classical era was composed for a type of instrument (the fortepiano) that is rather different from the instrument on which it is now played. Even the music of the Romantic period, including that of Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms, was written for pianos substantially different from modern pianos.

Frederic Chopin

Frederic Chopin’s compositional output was relatively small but had an enormous influence, particularly on piano music. All his music featured the piano in one capacity or another.


Photograph of Chopin by Bisson
Figure 1. Photograph of Chopin by Bisson, ca. 1849.

Frédéric François Chopin (22 February or 1 March 1810–17 October 1849), born Frederic Francois Chopin, was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era who wrote primarily for the solo piano. He gained and has maintained renown worldwide as one of the leading musicians of his era, whose “poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation.” Chopin was born in what was then the Duchy of Warsaw and grew up in Warsaw, which after 1815 became part of Congress Poland. A child prodigy, he completed his musical education and composed many of his works in Warsaw before leaving Poland at the age of 20, less than a month before the outbreak of the November 1830 Uprising.

At the age of 21, he settled in Paris. Thereafter, during the last 18 years of his life, he gave only some 30 public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon. He supported himself by selling his compositions and teaching piano, for which he was in high demand. Chopin formed a friendship with Franz Liszt and was admired by many of his musical contemporaries, including Robert Schumann. In 1835 he obtained French citizenship. After a failed engagement to a Polish girl, from 1837 to 1847 he maintained an often troubled relationship with the French writer George Sand. A brief and unhappy visit to Majorca with Sand in 1838–39 was one of his most productive periods of composition. In his last years, he was financially supported by his admirer Jane Stirling, who also arranged for him to visit Scotland in 1848. Through most of his life, Chopin suffered from poor health. He died in Paris in 1849, probably of tuberculosis.

All of Chopin’s compositions include the piano. Most are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces, and some songs to Polish lyrics. His keyboard style is highly individual and often technically demanding; his own performances were noted for their nuance and sensitivity. Chopin invented the concept of instrumental ballade. His major piano works also include sonatas, mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, études, impromptus, scherzos, and preludes, some published only after his death. Many contain elements of both Polish folk music and of the classical tradition of J. S. Bach, Mozart, and Schubert, the music of all of whom he admired. His innovations in style, musical form, and harmony and his association of music with nationalism were influential throughout and after the late Romantic period.

Both in his native Poland and beyond, Chopin’s music, his status as one of music’s earliest superstars, his association (if only indirect) with political insurrection, his love life, and his early death have made him, in the public consciousness, a leading symbol of the Romantic era. His works remain popular, and he has been the subject of numerous films and biographies of varying degrees of historical accuracy.

Nocturne in C# Minor

Before we dive into this nocturne, let’s get a little background on the genre itself. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article on the musical genre Nocturne:

In its more familiar form as a single-movement character piece usually written for solo piano, the nocturne was cultivated primarily in the 19th century. The first nocturnes to be written under the specific title were by the Irish composer John Field, generally viewed as the father of the Romantic nocturne that characteristically features a cantabile (songlike) melody over an arpeggiated, even guitar-like accompaniment. However, the most famous exponent of the form was Frederic Chopin, who wrote 21 of them.

Nocturnes, as the name suggests, generally exhibit a brooding or melancholy mood. There is relatively little to read on this page, and the first of the two paragraphs is more informative for our purposes, as it focuses on musical elements such as tempo and form rather than on critical opinion. However, I think there is value in reading both paragraphs, as the descriptive language provided by the cited critics may provide associations that will help you with identification.

Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1

The Nocturne in C-sharp minor is initially marked larghetto and is in 4/4 meter. It transitions to pi mosso (more movement) in measure 29. The piece returns to its original tempo in measure 84 and ends in an adagio beginning in measure 99. The piece is 101 measures long and written in ternary form with coda; the primary theme is introduced, followed by a secondary theme and a repetition of the first.

The opening alternates between major and minor and uses arpeggios, commonly found in other nocturnes as well, in the left hand. It sounds “morbid and intentionally grating.” James Friskin noted that the piece requires an “unusually wide extension of the left hand” in the beginning and called the piece “fine and tragic.” James Huneker commented that the piece is “a masterpiece,” pointing to the “morbid, persistent melody” of the left hand. For David Dubal, the pi mosso has a “restless, vehement power.” Huneker also likens the pi mosso to a work by Beethoven due to the agitated nature of this section. The coda “reminds the listener of Chopin’s seemingly inexhaustible prodigality,” according to Dubal, while Huneker calls it a “surprising climax followed by sunshine” before returning to the opening theme.


Please listen to the following audio file to listen to Nocturne No. 7.


The second theme of No. 1 in C♯ minor
The second theme of No. 1 in C♯ minor
Modulation to A♭ major
Modulation to A♭ major

Program Music and the Program Symphony

Program Music

Program music or programme music (British English) is music that attempts to depict in music an extra-musical scene or narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes inviting imaginative correlations with the music. A well-known example is Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of Hell. The genre culminates in the symphonic works of Richard Strauss that include narrations of the adventures of Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, the composer’s domestic life, and an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman. Following Strauss, the genre declined, and new works with explicitly narrative content are rare. Nevertheless, the genre continues to exert an influence on film music, especially where this draws upon the techniques of late Romantic music.

The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but programmatic pieces have long been a part of music. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics) and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder. Single-movement orchestral pieces of program music are often called symphonic poems.

Absolute music, in contrast, is to be appreciated without any particular reference to anything outside the music itself.

Program Symphony

Any instrumental genre could be composed in such a way as to tell a story or paint a picture in the mind’s eye of the listener. A program symphony is the result of a composer applying the principle of program music to the genre of the symphony. A program symphony, like any other work of that genre, would consist of multiple movements, usually four or five, and would likely follow to some extent the standard characteristics of symphonic construction. For example, the second movement would likely be slower than the first, and the third movement would be based on a dance. The fifth movement would serve as a kind of grand finale. Traditional forms would be of less concern to a composer of programmatic music, as the form of a movement would likely be influenced by the subject matter being depicted. Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique is one of the best-known examples of a program symphony.

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz was an early Romantic innovator. His music was not always appreciated in his day, though he certainly enjoyed a fair amount of success. Prone to sudden emotional swings, his personality seems to come through in the music in his ability to draw unusual sounds out of the orchestra. He is still studied today as a master orchestrator. His instrumental music was often programmatic, and his Symphonie Fantastique is one of the quintessential examples of orchestral storytelling. The final movement of that program symphony is on our playlist. Read this biography to learn about his life.

Symphonie Fantastique

This page article provides an excellent overview of one of Berlioz’s best known works, Symphonie Fantastique. I encourage you to read through the description of each of the movements of the piece, but of course the one that will be most important for you in our class is the description of the 5th and final movement, as that is the piece on our playlist. Try listening to the piece while you review the outline of the fifth movement to see if you can hear all the unusual orchestral effects described there.


Symphonie fantastique: (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts) Op. 14 is a program symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is an important piece of the early Romantic period and is popular with concert audiences worldwide. The first performance was at the Paris Conservatoire in December 1830. The work was repeatedly revived after 1831 and subsequently became a favorite in Paris.

Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium. According to Bernstein, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

In 1831, Berlioz wrote a lesser known sequel to the work, Lélio, for actor, orchestra and chorus. Franz Liszt made a piano transcription of the symphony in 1833 (S.470).


The symphony is a piece of program music that tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair because of hopeless love. Berlioz provided his own program notes for each movement of the work (see below). He prefaces his notes with the following instructions:

The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.

There are five movements instead of the four movements that were conventional for symphonies at the time:

  1. Rêveries—Passions (Reveries Passions)
  2. Un bal (A Ball)
  3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)
  4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
  5. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

First Movement: “RêveriesPassions” (ReveriePassions)

Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen

In Berlioz’s own program notes from 1845, he writes:

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions [le vague des passions], sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognizes a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations all this forms the subject of the first movement.

“The first movement is radical in its harmonic outline, building a vast arch back to the home key; while similar to the sonata form of the classical period, Parisian critics regarded this as unconventional. It is here that the listener is introduced to the theme of the artist’s beloved, or the idée fixe. Throughout the movement there is a simplicity in the way melodies and themes are presented, which Robert Schumann likened to ‘Beethoven’s epigrams’ ideas that could be extended had the composer chosen to. In part, it is because Berlioz rejected writing the more symmetrical melodies then in academic fashion, and instead looked for melodies that were ‘so intense in every note as to defy normal harmonization,’ as Schumann put it.” —Hector Berlioz: The Complete Guide

The theme itself was taken from Berlioz’s scene lyrique “Herminie,” composed in 1828.

Second Movement: “Un bal” (A Ball)

Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen

Again, quoting from Berlioz’s program notes:

The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

The second movement has a mysterious-sounding introduction that creates an atmosphere of impending excitement, followed by a passage dominated by two harps; then the flowing waltz theme appears, derived from the idée fixe at first, then transforming it. More formal statements of the idée fixe twice interrupt the waltz.

The movement is the only one to feature the two harps, providing the glamour and sensual richness of the ball, and may also symbolize the object of the young man’s affection. Berlioz wrote extensively in his memoirs of his trials and tribulations in having this symphony performed due to a lack of capable harpists and harps, especially in Germany.

Another feature of this movement is that Berlioz added a part for solo cornet to his autograph score, although it was not included in the score published in his lifetime. The work has most often been played and recorded without the solo cornet part. Conductors Jean Martinon, Sir Colin Davis, Otto Klemperer, Gustavo Dudamel, and Leonard Slatkin have employed this part for cornet in performances of the symphony.

Third Movement: “Scène aux champs” (Scene in the Fields)

Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen

From Berlioz’s program notes:

One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their “ranz des vaches”; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own . . . But what if she betrayed him! . . . This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his “ranz des vaches”; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder . . . solitude . . . silence.

The two “shepherds” Berlioz mentions in the notes are depicted with a cor anglais (English horn) and an offstage oboe tossing an evocative melody back and forth. After the cor anglais oboe conversation, the principal theme of the movement appears on solo flute and violins. Berlioz salvaged this theme from his abandoned Messe solennelle. The idée fixe returns in the middle of the movement, played by oboe and flute. The sound of distant thunder at the end of the movement is a striking passage for four timpani.

Fourth Movement: “Marche au supplice” (March to the Scaffold)

Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen

From Berlioz’s program notes:

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.

Berlioz claimed to have written the fourth movement in a single night, reconstructing music from an unfinished project—the opera Les francs-juges. The movement begins with timpani sextuplets in thirds, for which he directs, “The first quaver of each half-bar is to be played with two drumsticks, and the other five with the right hand drumsticks.” The movement proceeds as a march filled with blaring horns and rushing passages and scurrying figures that later show up in the last movement. Before the musical depiction of his execution, there is a brief, nostalgic recollection of the idée fixe in a solo clarinet, as though representing the last conscious thought of the soon-to-be-executed man. Immediately following this is a single, short fortissimo G minor chord—the fatal blow of the guillotine blade, followed by a series of pizzicato notes representing the rolling of the severed head into the basket. After his death, the final nine bars of the movement contain a victorious series of G major brass chords, along with rolls of the snare drums within the entire orchestra, seemingly intended to convey the cheering of the onlooking throng.

Fifth Movement: “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen

From Berlioz’s program notes:

He sees himself at a witches sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath. . . . Roar of delight at her arrival. . . . She joins the diabolical orgy . . . The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

This movement can be divided into sections according to tempo changes:

  • The introduction is Largo, in common time, creating an ominous quality through dynamic variations and instrumental effects, particularly in the strings (tremolos, pizz, sf).
  • At bar 21, the tempo changes to Allegro and the metronome to 6/8. The return of the idée fixe as a “vulgar dance tune” is depicted by the C clarinet. This is interrupted by an Allegro Assai section in cut common at bar 29.
  • The idée fixe then returns as a prominent E-flat clarinet solo at bar 40, in 6/8 and Allegro. The E-flat clarinet contributes a sharper, more shrill timbre than the C clarinet.
  • At bar 80, there is one bar of alla breve, with descending crotchets in unison through the entire orchestra. Again in 6/8, this section sees the introduction of tubular bells and fragments of the “witches’ round dance.”
  • The “Dies irae” begins at bar 127, the motif derived from the 13th-century Latin sequence. It is initially stated in unison between the unusual combination of four bassoons and two tubas.
  • At bar 222, the “witches’ round dance” motif is repeatedly stated in the strings, to be interrupted by three syncopated notes in the brass. This leads into the Ronde du Sabbat (Sabbath Round) at bar 241, where the motif is finally expressed in full.
  • The Dies irae et Ronde du Sabbat Ensemble section is at bar 414.

There are a host of effects, including eerie col legno in the strings—the bubbling of the witches’ cauldron to the blasts of wind. The climactic finale combines the somber Dies Irae melody with the wild fugue of the Ronde du Sabbat.

The aim of the second kind of imitation, as we have said before, is to reproduce the intonations of the passions and the emotions, and even to trace a musical image, or metaphor, of objects that can only be seen. The continual interruption of the Dies irae motif by the strings symbolizes this continual fight of death until the movement and piece eventually, as we all do given in to the Dies irae theme and our eventual but necessary deaths.

He later adds:

Emotional (imitation) is designed to arouse in us by means of sound the notion of the several passions of the heart, and to awaken solely through the sense of hearing the impressions that human beings experience only through the other senses. Such is the goal of expression, depiction or musical metaphors.

As part of this, he uses an example of cyclical structure—an idea drawn from Beethoven’s use of similar rhythmic structures in his Fifth Symphony, and the idea of musical “cycles,” such as a “song cycle.” Berlioz did not know of Mendelssohn’s Octet, which also uses this device.

Introduction to Romantic Opera

This section contains information on major trends and composers in Romantic opera. We will be focusing our study on developments in the Italian and German operatic traditions. There was also a good deal of innovation taking place in Paris in the 19th century, but Verdi (Italian) and Wagner (German) were the most influential composers of the era, so we’ll be limiting our reading to those two national styles.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slide Show: Romantic Opera
  • Early Romantic Opera
  • Later Romantic Opera
  • Trends in German and Italian Opera
  • Giuseppe Verdi
  • Rigoletto
  • La donna e mobile
  • Verdi’s Requiem
  • Richard Wagner
  • Tristan und Isolde
  • Liebestod
  • Verismo
  • Giacomo Pucinni
  • La Boheme
  • Che gelida manina
  • Si, mi chiamano Mimi


Romantic Opera from Lumen Learning

Early Romantic Era

As you read about the composers and operas we study in this class, you’ll hear frequent references to other earlier composers. Please read this brief background on the composers and trends that led to the later Romantic operas we will focus on. This site uses the term “vamp” to refer to the simple chordal accompaniment heard supporting bel canto arias. In the United States, that term tends to refer to a repeated accompaniment or ostinato, but the Scottish site we’re linking to uses it to mean a particular way of repeating a simple chord. View their site’s definition of vamp here along with a music example.

Later Romantic Era

While this article doesn’t cover all the operatic composers that we listen to in our class, it does provide a helpful summary of the Italian and German operatic traditions in the late 19th century. It also provides some helpful listening prompts for understanding the characteristics of the music of Verdi and Wagner. Please read this article carefully, and be sure to look up any musical terms that are unfamiliar using the site’s “A to Z Dictionary.” The link for that dictionary is found on the lower left of the page. Terms like leitmotif, bel canto, or rubato may appear on Exam 4 Terminology.

Trends in German and Italian Opera

These few paragraphs drill down a bit deeper into the styles of the three opera composers we’ll study: Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. I don’t want to give the impression that nothing was happening in opera outside of Italy and Germany. Paris was a major center of opera composition in the 19th century, and there were world-class opera houses in Prague and London that are still operating today. We simply have to pare down our focus in a one-semester survey course like this, and Verdi and Wagner were the biggest names in the business.

Bel canto, Verdi, and Verismo


La donna è mobile

Please listen to the following audio file to hear Enrico Caruso sing “La donna è mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1908).

No Pagliaccio non son

Please listen to the following audio file to hear an aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, performed by Enrico Caruso.

The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante, and many others. Literally “beautiful singing,” bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control. Examples of famous operas in the bel canto style include Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, as well as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco. Verdi’s operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the patriotic movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical). In the early 1850s, Verdi produced his three most popular operas: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. But he continued to develop his style, composing perhaps the greatest French Grand Opera, Don Carlos, and ending his career with two Shakespeare-inspired works, Otello and Falstaff, which reveal how far Italian opera had grown in sophistication since the early 19th century.

After Verdi, the sentimental “realistic” melodrama of verismo appeared in Italy. This was a style introduced by Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci that came virtually to dominate the world’s opera stages with such popular works as Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. Later Italian composers, such as Berio and Nono, have experimented with modernism.

German-Language Opera

The Queen of the Night in an 1815 production of Mozart’s Die
Figure 1. The Queen of the Night in an 1815 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

The first German opera was Dafne, composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627, but the music score has not survived. Italian opera held a great sway over German-speaking countries until the late 18th century. Nevertheless, native forms would develop in spite of this influence. In 1644, Sigmund Staden produced the first Singspiel, Seelewig, a popular form of German-language opera in which singing alternates with spoken dialogue. In the late 17th century and early 18th century, the Theater am Gensemarkt in Hamburg presented German operas by Keiser, Telemann, and Handel. Yet most of the major German composers of the time, including Handel himself, as well as Graun, Hasse, and later Gluck, chose to write most of their operas in foreign languages, especially Italian. In contrast to Italian opera, which was generally composed for the aristocratic class, German opera was generally composed for the masses and tended to feature simple folk-like melodies, and it was not until the arrival of Mozart that German opera was able to match its Italian counterpart in musical sophistication.

Mozart’s Singspiele, Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflute (1791), were an important breakthrough in achieving international recognition for German opera. The tradition was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven with his Fidelio, inspired by the climate of the French Revolution. Carl Maria von Weber established German Romantic opera in opposition to the dominance of Italian bel canto. His Der Freischütz (1821) shows his genius for creating a supernatural atmosphere. Other opera composers of the time include Marschner, Schubert, and Lortzing, but the most significant figure was undoubtedly Wagner.

Richard Wagner, portrait
Figure 1. Richard Wagner.

Wagner was one of the most revolutionary and controversial composers in musical history. Starting under the influence of Weber and Meyerbeer, he gradually evolved a new concept of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk (a “complete work of art”), a fusion of music, poetry, and painting. He greatly increased the role and power of the orchestra, creating scores with a complex web of leitmotifs, recurring themes often associated with the characters and concepts of the drama, of which prototypes can be heard in his earlier operas such as Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin; and he was prepared to violate accepted musical conventions, such as tonality, in his quest for greater expressivity. In his mature music dramas, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal, he abolished the distinction between aria and recitative in favor of a seamless flow of “endless melody.” Wagner also brought a new philosophical dimension to opera in his works, which were usually based on stories from Germanic or Arthurian legend. Finally, Wagner built his own opera house at Bayreuth with part of the patronage from Ludwig II of Bavaria, exclusively dedicated to performing his own works in the style he wanted.

Opera would never be the same after Wagner, and for many composers, his legacy proved a heavy burden. On the other hand, Richard Strauss accepted Wagnerian ideas but took them in wholly new directions. He first won fame with the scandalous Salome and the dark tragedy Elektra, in which tonality was pushed to the limits. Then Strauss changed tack in his greatest success, Der Rosenkavalier, where Mozart and Viennese waltzes became as important an influence as Wagner. Strauss continued to produce a highly varied body of operatic works, often with libretti by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Other composers who made individual contributions to German opera in the early 20th century include Alexander von Zemlinsky, Erich Korngold, Franz Schreker, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, and the Italian-born Ferruccio Busoni. The operatic innovations of Arnold Schoenberg and his successors are discussed in the section on modernism.

During the late 19th century, the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, an admirer of the French-language operettas composed by Jacques Offenbach, composed several German-language operettas, the most famous of which was Die Fledermaus, which is still regularly performed today.[18] Nevertheless, rather than copying the style of Offenbach, the operettas of Strauss II had a distinctly Viennese flavor to them, which have cemented the Strauss II’s place as one of the most renowned operetta composers of all time.

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi is considered one of the greatest operatic composers of the 19th century, and his works are widely performed today around the world. He also defies the cliché of the tragic life of the Romantic artist. While his life was not free from sorrow, he was widely appreciated and enormously successful throughout his long life.


Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (9 or 10 October 1813–27 January 1901) was an Italian Romantic composer primarily known for his operas.

He is considered, with Richard Wagner, the preeminent opera composer of the 19th century. Verdi dominated the Italian opera scene after the eras of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture, examples being “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La traviata, “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, the “Coro di zingari” (Anvil Chorus) from Il trovatore, and the “Grand March” from Aida.

Moved by the death of compatriot Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi wrote Messa da Requiem in 1874 in Manzoni’s honor, a work now regarded as a masterpiece of the oratorio tradition and a testimony to his capacity outside the field of opera. Visionary and politically engaged, he remains—alongside Garibaldi and Cavour—an emblematic figure of the reunification process (the Risorgimento) of the Italian Peninsula.

Please read the introduction and all the subsections of the biographical portion of the article (section 1).


To study an aria, you simply have to know the larger story of which it is a part. Our aria, “La donna è mobile,” is heard in the beginning of act 3.


Place: Mantua
Time: The sixteenth century

Act 1

Scene 1: A room in the palace

Act 1, sc. 1: Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse
Act 1, sc. 1: Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse

At a ball in his palace, the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible: “Questa o quella” (“This woman or that”). He has seen an unknown beauty in church and desires to possess her, but he also wishes to seduce the Countess of Ceprano. Rigoletto, the Duke’s hunchbacked court jester, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention and advises the Duke to get rid of them by prison or death. Marullo, one of the guests at the ball, informs the noblemen that Rigoletto has a “lover,” and the noblemen cannot believe it. The noblemen resolve to take vengeance on Rigoletto. Subsequently Rigoletto mocks Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had seduced. Count Monterone is arrested at the Duke’s order and curses the Duke and Rigoletto. The curse genuinely terrifies Rigoletto.

Scene 2: A street, with the courtyard of Rigoletto’s house

Act 1, Scene 2 stage set by Giuseppe Bertoja for the world premiere of Rigoletto
Act 1, Scene 2 stage set by Giuseppe Bertoja for the world premiere of Rigoletto

Thinking of the curse, Rigoletto approaches his house and is accosted by the assassin Sparafucile, who walks up to him and offers his services. Rigoletto considers the proposition but finally declines; Sparafucile wanders off, after repeating his own name a few times. Rigoletto contemplates the similarities between the two of them: “Pari siamo!” (“We are alike!”); Sparafucile kills men with his sword, and Rigoletto uses “a tongue of malice” to stab his victims. Rigoletto opens a door in the wall and returns home to his daughter Gilda. They greet each other warmly: “Figlia!” “Mio padre!” (“Daughter!” “My father!”). Rigoletto has been concealing his daughter from the Duke and the rest of the city, and she does not know her father’s occupation. Since he has forbidden her to appear in public, she has been nowhere except to church and does not even know her own father’s name.

When Rigoletto has gone, the Duke appears and overhears Gilda confess to her nurse Giovanna that she feels guilty for not having told her father about a young man she had met at the church. She says that she fell in love with him but that she would love him even more if he were a student and poor. As she declares her love, the Duke enters, overjoyed. Gilda, alarmed, calls for Giovanna, unaware that the Duke had sent her away. Pretending to be a student, the Duke convinces Gilda of his love: “È il sol dell’anima” (“Love is the sunshine of the soul”). When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Gualtier Maldè. Hearing sounds and fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after they quickly trade vows of love: “Addio, addio” (“Farewell, farewell”). Alone, Gilda meditates on her love for the Duke, whom she believes is a student: “Gualtier Maldè! . . . Caro nome” (“Dearest name”).

Later, a preoccupied Rigoletto returns: “Riedo!. . . perché?” (“I’ve returned! . . . why?”), while the hostile noblemen outside the walled garden (believing Gilda to be the jester’s mistress, unaware she is his daughter) get ready to abduct the helpless girl. Convincing Rigoletto that they are actually abducting the Countess Ceprano, they blindfold him and use him to help with the abduction: “Zitti, zitti” (“Softly, softly”). With her father’s unknowing assistance Gilda is carried away by the noblemen. Upon realizing that it was in fact Gilda who was carried away, Rigoletto collapses, remembering the curse.

Act 2

The Duke’s Palace

The Duke is concerned that Gilda has disappeared: “Ella mi fu rapita!” (“She was stolen from me!”) and “Parmi veder le lagrime” (“I seem to see tears”). The noblemen then enter and inform him that they have captured Rigoletto’s mistress. By their description, he recognizes it to be Gilda and rushes off to the room where she is held: “Possente amor mi chiama” (“Mighty love beckons me”). Pleased by the Duke’s strange excitement, the courtiers now make sport with Rigoletto, who enters singing. He tries to find Gilda by pretending to be uncaring, as he fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke. Finally, he admits that he is in fact seeking his daughter and asks the courtiers to return her to him: “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (“Accursed race of courtiers”). Rigoletto attempts to run into the room in which Gilda is being held, but the noblemen beat him. Gilda rushes in and begs her father to send the people away. The men leave the room, believing Rigoletto has gone mad. Gilda describes to her father what has happened to her in the palace: “Tutte le feste al tempio” (“On all the blessed days”). In a duet, Rigoletto demands vengeance against the Duke while Gilda pleads for her lover: “Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!” (“Yes! Revenge, terrible revenge!”).

Act 3

A street outside Sparafucile’s house

Listen: “Bella figlia dell’amore”

Please listen to the following audio file to hear the 1907 Victor Records recording with Enrico Caruso, Bessie Abott, Louise Homer, and Antonio Scotti.

A portion of Sparafucile’s house is seen, with two rooms open to the view of the audience. Rigoletto and Gilda, who still loves the Duke, arrive outside. The Duke’s voice can be heard singing “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle”), laying out the infidelity and fickle nature of women. Rigoletto makes Gilda realize that it is the Duke who is in the assassin’s house attempting to seduce Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena: “Bella figlia dell’amore” (“Beautiful daughter of love”).

Rigoletto bargains with the assassin, who is ready to murder his guest for money, and offers him 20 scudi to kill the Duke. He orders his daughter to put on a man’s clothes to prepare to leave for Verona and states that he plans to follow later. With falling darkness, a thunderstorm approaches and the Duke determines to remain in the house. Sparafucile assigns to him the ground floor sleeping quarters.

Gilda, who still loves the Duke despite knowing him to be unfaithful, returns dressed as a man. She overhears Maddalena begging for the Duke’s life, and Sparafucile promises her that if by midnight another can be found in place of the Duke, he will spare the Duke’s life. Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke and enters the house. She is immediately mortally wounded and collapses.

At midnight, when Rigoletto arrives with money, he receives a corpse wrapped in a sack and rejoices in his triumph. Weighting it with stones, he is about to cast the sack into the river when he hears the voice of the Duke singing a reprise of his “La donna è mobile” aria. Bewildered, Rigoletto opens the sack and, to his despair, discovers his mortally wounded daughter. For a moment, she revives and declares she is glad to die for her beloved: “V’ho ingannato” (“Father, I deceived you”). She dies in his arms. Rigoletto’s wildest fear materializes when he cries out in horror: “La maledizione!” (“The curse!”)

As you read this page on this aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto, pay particular attention to the information on the theme and the form of the piece.


La donna è mobile” (The woman is fickle) is the Duke of Mantua’s canzone from the beginning of act 3 of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto (1851). The inherent irony is that the Duke, a callous playboy, is the one who is mobile (“inconstant”). Its reprise toward the end of the opera is chilling, as Rigoletto realizes from the sound of the Duke’s lively voice coming from within the tavern (offstage) that the body in the sack over which he has grimly triumphed is not that of the Duke after all: Rigoletto had paid Sparafucile, an assassin, to kill the Duke, but Sparafucile deceived him by killing Gilda, Rigoletto’s beloved daughter, instead.

The canzone is famous as a showcase for tenors. Raffaele Mirate’s performance of the bravura aria at the opera’s 1851 premiere was hailed as the highlight of the evening. Before its first public performance (in Venice), it was rehearsed under tight secrecy: a necessary precaution, because it proved to be catchy, and soon after its first public performance every gondolier in Venice was singing it.

The Music

The almost comical-sounding theme of “La donna è mobile” is introduced immediately and runs as illustrated (transposed from the original key of B major). The theme is repeated several times in the approximately two to three minutes it takes to perform the aria, but with the important—and obvious—omission of the last bar. This has the effect of driving the music forward as it creates the impression of being incomplete and unresolved, which it is, ending not on the tonic or dominant but on the submediant. Once the Duke has finished singing, however, the theme is once again repeated; but this time it includes the last, and conclusive, bar, finally resolving to the tonic. The song is strophic in form with an orchestral ritornello.

Theme (transposed down by a major third)
Figure 1. Theme (transposed down by a major third).


Italian Prosaic translation Poetic translation

1. La donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensiero.

Sempre un amabile,
leggiadro viso,
in pianto o in riso,
è menzognero.

La donna è mobil’.
Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensier’!

2. È sempre misero
chi a lei s’affida,
chi le confida
mal cauto il cuore!

Pur mai non sentesi
felice appieno
chi su quel seno
non liba amore!

La donna è mobil’
Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensier’!

Woman is flighty.
Like a feather in the wind,
she changes in voice
and in thought.

Always a lovely,
pretty face,
in tears or in laughter,
it’s untrue.

Woman is flighty.
like a feather in the wind,
she changes in voice
and in thought!

Always miserable
is he who trusts her,
he who confides in her
his unwary heart!

Yet one never feels
fully happy
who from that bosom
does not drink love!

Woman is flighty.
Like a feather in the wind,
she changes her words,
and her thoughts!

Plume in the summer wind
Waywardly playing
Ne’er one way swaying
Each whim obeying;

Thus heart of womankind
Ev’ry way bendeth,
Woe who dependeth
On joy she spendeth!

Yes, heart of woman
Ev’ry way bendeth
Woe who dependeth
On joy she spends.

Sorrow and misery
Follow her smiling,
Fond hearts beguiling,
falsehood assoiling!

Yet all felicity
Is her bestowing,
No joy worth knowing
Is there but wooing.

Yes, heart of woman
Ev’ry way bendeth
Woe who dependeth
On joy she spends.

Verdi’s Requiem

Although in this module we are focusing on opera, this piece shows that our operatic composers wrote in other genres as well. The Romantic tendency toward grand gestures and the operatic composer’s tendency toward dramatic expression impacted other genres. Though this article discusses a movement from a Requiem Mass, it has all the potency of a dramatic production. This brief essay on Verdi’s towering Requiem provides an engaging overview of it’s historical origins and emotional power.

Richard Wagner

I’m going to make you jump around this article a bit, as it is more lengthy and detailed than is necessary for our purposes. That said, if you want to read a biography that makes the latest season of [insert favorite teen angst television drama title here] look like an innocent kindergarten playground, dive right in and read the whole thing. Pay special attention to the impact Wagner’s music has had on film scoring. Wagner has always inspired strong feelings among his supporters and detractors, and you’ll see that clearly in this page.

As a side note, how often would you say the phrase “the father of heavy metal” has appeared in our study of classical composers? Never? Really? Well, the wait is over. Read on.


Richard Wagner
Figure 1. Richard Wagner.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813–13 February 1883) was a German composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, “music dramas”). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionized opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), by which he sought to synthesize the poetic, visual, musical, and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama and which was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realized these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas, or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centers, greatly influenced the development of classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.

Wagner had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which embodied many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed in an annual festival run by his descendants. His thoughts on the relative contributions of music and drama in opera were to change again, and he reintroduced some traditional forms into his last few stage works, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg).

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty, and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama, and politics have attracted extensive comment in recent decades, especially where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; their influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts, and theater.


Starting the Ring

Wagner’s late dramas are considered his masterpieces. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring or “Ring cycle,” is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Germanic mythology—particularly from the later Norse mythology—notably the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Wagner specifically developed the libretti for these operas according to his interpretation of Stabreim, highly alliterative rhyming verse-pairs used in old Germanic poetry. They were also influenced by Wagner’s concepts of ancient Greek drama, in which tetralogies were a component of Athenian festivals and which he had amply discussed in his essay “Oper und Drama.”

The first two components of the Ring cycle were Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), which was completed in 1854, and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), which was finished in 1856. In Das Rheingold, with its “relentlessly talky ‘realism’ [and] the absence of lyrical ‘numbers,’” Wagner came very close to the musical ideals of his 1849–51 essays. Die Walküre, which contains what is virtually a traditional aria (Siegmund’s Winterstürme in the first act), and the quasi-choral appearance of the Valkyries themselves, shows more “operatic” traits but has been assessed by Barry Millington as “the music drama that most satisfactorily embodies the theoretical principles of ‘Oper und Drama.’ . . . A thoroughgoing synthesis of poetry and music is achieved without any notable sacrifice in musical expression.”

Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger

Franz Betz, who created the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, and sang Wotan in the first complete Ring cycle
Figure 2. Franz Betz, who created the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and sang Wotan in the first complete Ring cycle.

While composing the opera Siegfried, the third part of the Ring cycle, Wagner interrupted work on it and between 1857 and 1864 wrote the tragic love story Tristan und Isolde and his only mature comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), two works that are also part of the regular operatic canon.

Tristan is often granted a special place in musical history; many see it as the beginning of the move away from conventional harmony and tonality and consider that it lays the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century. Wagner felt that his musico-dramatical theories were most perfectly realized in this work with its use of “the art of transition” between dramatic elements and the balance achieved between vocal and orchestral lines. Completed in 1859, the work was given its first performance in Munich, conducted by Bülow, in June 1865.

Die Meistersinger was originally conceived by Wagner in 1845 as a sort of comic pendant to Tannhäuser. Like Tristan, it was premiered in Munich under the baton of Bülow on 21 June 1868 and became an immediate success. Barry Millington describes Meistersinger as “a rich, perceptive music drama widely admired for its warm humanity”; but because of its strong German nationalist overtones, it is also cited by some as an example of Wagner’s reactionary politics and antisemitism.

Completing the Ring

When Wagner returned to writing the music for the last act of Siegfried and for Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), as the final part of the Ring, his style had changed once more to something more recognizable as “operatic” than the aural world of Rheingold and Walküre, though it was still thoroughly stamped with his own originality as a composer and suffused with leitmotifs. This was in part because the libretti of the four Ring operas had been written in reverse order so that the book for Götterdämmerung was conceived more “traditionally” than that of Rheingold; still, the self-imposed strictures of the Gesamtkunstwerk had become relaxed. The differences also result from Wagner’s development as a composer during the period in which he wrote Tristan, Meistersinger, and the Paris version of Tannhäuser. From act 3 of Siegfried onward, the Ring becomes more chromatic melodically, more complex harmonically, and more developmental in its treatment of leitmotifs.

Wagner took 26 years from writing the first draft of a libretto in 1848 until he completed Götterdämmerung in 1874. The Ring takes about 15 hours to perform and is the only undertaking of such size to be regularly presented on the world’s stages.

Influence on Music

Wagner’s later musical style introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process (leitmotif), and operatic structure. Notably from Tristan und Isolde onward, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system, which gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, which include the so-called Tristan chord.

Gustav Mahler
Figure 3. Gustav Mahler.

Wagner inspired great devotion. For a long period, many composers were inclined to align themselves with or against Wagner’s music. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf were greatly indebted to him, as were César Franck, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Richard Strauss, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner, and numerous others. Gustav Mahler was devoted to Wagner and his music; aged 15, he sought him out on his 1875 visit to Vienna and became a renowned Wagner conductor, and his compositions are seen by Richard Taruskin as extending Wagner’s “maximalization” of “the temporal and the sonorous” in music to the world of the symphony. The harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (both of whose oeuvres contain examples of tonal and atonal modernism) have often been traced back to Tristan and Parsifal. The Italian form of operatic realism known as verismo owed much to the Wagnerian concept of musical form.

Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting. His essay “About Conducting” (1869) advanced Hector Berlioz’s technique of conducting and claimed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. He exemplified this approach in his own conducting, which was significantly more flexible than the disciplined approach of Mendelssohn; in his view, this also justified practices that would today be frowned upon, such as the rewriting of scores. Wilhelm Furtwängler felt that Wagner and Bülow, through their interpretative approach, inspired a whole new generation of conductors (including Furtwängler himself).

Among those claiming inspiration from Wagner’s music are the German band Rammstein and the electronic composer Klaus Schulze, whose 1975 album Timewind consists of two 30-minute tracks, Bayreuth Return and Wahnfried 1883. Joey DeMaio of the band Manowar has described Wagner as “the father of heavy metal.” The Slovenian group Laibach created the 2009 suite VolksWagner, using material from Wagner’s operas. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recording technique was, it has been claimed, heavily influenced by Wagner.

Again, I want you to understand the story in which our Wagnerian aria is set. The opera is based on a medieval German telling of an ancient Celtic legend set in the British Isles. Lots of sword fighting, betrayal, magic potions, and doomed lovers. The “Liebestod,” the piece on our playlist, is the final aria from the opera.


Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde, or Tristan and Isolda, or Tristran and Ysolt) is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Straßburg. It was composed between 1857 and 1859 and premiered at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting. Wagner referred to the work not as an opera but called it “eine Handlung” (literally a drama, a plot or an action), which was the equivalent of the term used by the Spanish playwright Calderón for his dramas.

Wagner’s composition of Tristan und Isolde was inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (particularly The World as Will and Representation) and Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck. Widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertoire, Tristan was notable for Wagner’s unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral color, and harmonic suspension.

The opera was enormously influential among Western classical composers and provided direct inspiration to composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Karol Szymanowski, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Benjamin Britten. Other composers like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky formulated their styles in contrast to Wagner’s musical legacy. Many see Tristan as the beginning of the move away from common-practice harmony and tonality and consider that it lays the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century. Both Wagner’s libretto style and music were also profoundly influential on the Symbolist poets of the late 19th century and early 20th century.


Act 1

Isolde by Aubrey Beardsley, 1895 illustration for The Studio magazine of the tragic opera heroine drinking the love potion
Figure 1. Isolde by Aubrey Beardsley, 1895 illustration for The Studio magazine of the tragic opera heroine drinking the love potion.

Isolde, promised to King Marke in marriage, and her handmaid, Brangäne, are quartered aboard Tristan’s ship being transported to the king’s lands in Cornwall. The opera opens with the voice of a young sailor singing of a “wild Irish maid” (“West-wärts schweift der Blick”), which Isolde construes to be a mocking reference to herself. In a furious outburst, she wishes the seas to rise up and sink the ship, killing herself and all on board (“Erwache mir wieder, kühne Gewalt”). Her scorn and rage are directed particularly at Tristan, the knight responsible for taking her to Marke, and Isolde sends Brangäne to command Tristan to appear before her (“Befehlen liess’ dem Eigenholde”). Tristan, however, refuses Brangäne’s request, claiming that his place is at the helm. His henchman, Kurwenal, answers more brusquely, saying that Isolde is in no position to command Tristan and reminds Brangäne that Isolde’s previous fiancé, Morold, was killed by Tristan (“Herr Morold zog zu Meere her.”)

Brangäne returns to Isolde to relate these events, and Isolde, in what is termed the “narrative and curse,” sadly tells her of how, following the death of Morold, she happened upon a stranger who called himself Tantris. Tantris was found mortally wounded in a barge (“von einem Kahn, der klein und arm”), and Isolde used her healing powers to restore him to health. She discovered during Tantris’s recovery, however, that he was actually Tristan, the murderer of her fiancé. Isolde attempted to kill the man with his own sword as he lay helpless before her. However, Tristan looked not at the sword that would kill him or the hand that wielded the sword but into her eyes (“Er sah’ mir in die Augen”). His action pierced her heart, and she was unable to slay him. Tristan was allowed to leave with the promise never to come back, but he later returned with the intention of marrying Isolde to his uncle, King Marke. Isolde, furious at Tristan’s betrayal, insists that he drink in atonement to her and from her medicine-chest produces a vial to make the drink. Brangäne is shocked to see that it is a lethal poison.

Kurwenal appears in the women’s quarters (“Auf auf! Ihr Frauen!”) and announces that the voyage is coming to an end. Isolde warns Kurwenal that she will not appear before the King if Tristan does not come before her as she had previously ordered and drink in  atonement to her. When Tristan arrives, Isolde reproaches him about his conduct and tells him that he owes her his life and how his actions have undermined her honor, since she blessed Morold’s weapons before battle and therefore she swore revenge. Tristan first offers his sword but Isolde refuses; they must drink in atonement. Brangäne brings in the potion that will seal their pardon, Tristan knows that it may kill him, since he knows Isolde’s magic powers (“Wohl kenn’ ich Irland’s Königin”). The journey is almost at its end. Tristan drinks and Isolde takes half the potion for herself. The potion seems to work, but it does not bring death but relentless love (“Tristan! Isolde!”). Kurwenal, who announces the imminent arrival on board of King Marke, interrupts their rapture. Isolde asks Brangäne which potion she prepared, and Brangäne replies, as the sailors hail the arrival of King Marke, that it was not poison but rather a love potion.

Act 2

King Marke leads a hunting party out into the night, leaving Isolde and Brangäne alone in the castle, who both stand beside a burning brazier. Isolde, listening to the hunting horns, believes several times that the hunting party is far enough away to warrant the extinguishing of the brazier—the prearranged signal for Tristan to join her (“Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold”). Brangäne warns Isolde that Melot, one of King Marke’s knights, has seen the amorous looks exchanged between Tristan and Isolde and suspects their passion (“Ein Einz’ger war’s, ich achtet’ es wohl”). Isolde, however, believes Melot to be Tristan’s most loyal friend and, in a frenzy of desire, extinguishes the flames. Brangäne retires to the ramparts to keep watch as Tristan arrives.

The lovers, at last alone and freed from the constraints of courtly life, declare their passion for each other. Tristan decries the realm of daylight, which is false, unreal, and keeps them apart. It is only in night, he claims, that they can truly be together, and only in the long night of death can they be eternally united (“O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe”). During their long tryst, Brangäne calls a warning several times that the night is ending (“Einsam wachend in der Nacht”), but her cries fall upon deaf ears. The day breaks in on the lovers as Melot leads King Marke and his men to find Tristan and Isolde in each other’s arms. Marke is heartbroken not only because of his nephew’s betrayal but also because Melot chose to betray his friend Tristan to Marke and because of Isolde’s betrayal as well (“Mir—dies? Dies, Tristan—mir?”).

When questioned, Tristan says he cannot answer to the king the reason for his betrayal since he would not understand, he turns to Isolde, who agrees to follow him again into the realm of night. Tristan announces that Melot has fallen in love with Isolde too. Melot and Tristan fight, but, at the crucial moment, Tristan throws his sword aside and allows Melot to severely wound him.

Act 3

Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany. A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake. Kurwenal replies that only Isolde’s arrival can save Tristan, and the shepherd offers to keep watch and claims that he will pipe a joyful tune to mark the arrival of any ship. Tristan awakes (“Die alte Weise—was weckt sie mich?”) and laments his fate—to be, once again, in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning (“Wo ich erwacht’ Weilt ich nicht”). Tristan’s sorrow ends when Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is on her way. Tristan, overjoyed, asks if her ship is in sight, but only a sorrowful tune from the shepherd’s pipe is heard.

Tristan relapses and recalls that the shepherd’s mournful tune is the same as was played when he was told of the deaths of his father and mother (“Muss ich dich so versteh’n, du alte, ernst Weise”). He rails once again against his desires and against the fateful love potion (“verflucht sei, furchtbarer Trank!”) until, exhausted, he collapses in delirium. After his collapse, the shepherd is heard piping the arrival of Isolde’s ship, and, as Kurwenal rushes to meet her, Tristan tears the bandages from his wounds in his excitement (“Hahei! Mein Blut, lustig nun fliesse!”). As Isolde arrives at his side, Tristan dies with her name on his lips.

Isolde collapses beside her deceased lover just as the appearance of another ship is announced. Kurwenal spies Melot, Marke, and Brangäne arriving (“Tod und Hölle! Alles zur Hand!”); he believes they have come to kill Tristan; and, in an attempt to avenge him, furiously attacks Melot. Marke tries to stop the fight to no avail. Both Melot and Kurwenal are killed in the fight. Marke and Brangäne finally reach Tristan and Isolde. Marke, grieving over the body of his “truest friend” (“Tot denn alles!”), explains that Brangäne revealed the secret of the love potion and has come not to part the lovers but to unite them (“Warum Isolde, warum mir das?”). Isolde appears to wake at this and, in a final aria describing her vision of Tristan risen again (the “Liebestod,” “love death”), dies (“Mild und leise wie er lächelt”).


This very brief Wikipedia article contains the original German text of the aria and an English translation. I’d definitely suggest listening to the aria with the translation in front of you. It’s much more meaningful if you understand what’s being sung.


Liebestod” ([ˈliːbəsˌtoːt]  German for “love death”) is the title of the final dramatic music from the 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner. When used as a literary term, liebestod (from German Liebe, love, and Tod, death) refers to the theme of erotic death or “love death,” meaning the two lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. Other two-sided examples include Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliet, and to some degree Wuthering Heights. One-sided examples are Porphyria’s Lover and The Sorrows of Young Werther. The joint suicide of Heinrich von Kleist and lover Henriette Vogel (de) is often associated with the Liebestod theme.

The aria is the climactic end of the opera as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body.

Partial Text


English Translation

Mild und leise
wie er lächelt,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet
—seht ihr’s, Freunde?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Immer lichter
wie er leuchtet,
hoch sich hebt?
Seht ihr’s nicht?

höchste Lust!

Softly and gently
how he smiles,
how his eyes
fondly open
—do you see, friends?
do you not see?
how he shines
ever brighter.
rising higher
Do you not see?

[. . . and ends . . .]

to drown,
to founder—
utmost bliss!


Verismo, which in this context means “realism,” is the name for a movement that arose in opera near the end of the 19th century. Composers of versimo operas chose realistic settings, often depicting the struggles and drama of common people. In this they were reacting against the grandiosity and mythological focus of Romanticism. Verismo, like Impressionism, is part of the transition from the Romantic to the Modern era and could justifiably be studied as part of either period. Just as we studied Beethoven in the Classical era and Schubert in the Romantic era, we will examine verismo opera (and one of its greatest practitioners, Giacomo Puccini) in our study of the Romantic period and Impressionism in our study of the 20th century.


In opera, verismo (meaning “realism,” from Italian vero, meaning “true”) was a post-Romantic operatic tradition associated with Italian composers such as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, and Giacomo Puccini.

Verismo as an operatic genre had its origins in an Italian literary movement also called “verismo” (see Verismo [literature]). The Italian literary movement of verismo, in turn, was related to the international literary movement of Naturalism as practiced by Émile Zola and others. Like naturalism, the verismo literary movement sought to portray the world with greater realism. In so doing, Italian verismo authors such as Giovanni Verga wrote about subject matter, such as the lives of the poor, that had not generally been seen as a fit subject for literature. A short story by Verga called Cavalleria rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”), then developed into a play by the same author, became the source for what is usually considered to be the first verismo opera: Cavalleria rusticana by Mascagni, which premiered on 17 May 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Thus begun, the operatic genre of verismo produced a handful of notable works, such as Pagliacci, which premiered at Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, and Puccini’s Tosca (premiering at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900.) The genre peaked in the early 1900s and lingered into the 1920s.

In terms of subject matter, generally “[v]erismo operas focused not on gods, mythological figures, or kings and queens, but on the average contemporary man and woman and their problems, generally of a sexual romantic, or violent nature.” However, two of the small handful of verismo operas still performed today take historical subjects: Puccini’s Tosca and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. “Musically, verismo composers consciously strove for the integration of the opera’s underlying drama with its music.” These composers abandoned the “recitative and set-piece structure” of earlier Italian opera. Instead, the operas were “through-composed,” with few breaks in a seamlessly integrated sung text. While verismo operas may contain arias that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, they are generally written to arise naturally from their dramatic surroundings, and their structure is variable, being based on text that usually does not follow a regular strophic format.

The most famous composers who created works in the verismo style were Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, and Francesco Cilea. There were, however, many other veristi: Franco Alfano, Alfredo Catalani, Gustave Charpentier (Louise), Eugen d’Albert (Tiefland), Ignatz Waghalter (Der Teufelsweg and Jugend), Alberto Franchetti, Franco Leoni, Jules Massenet (La Navarraise), Licinio Refice, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (I gioielli della Madonna), and Riccardo Zandonai.

The term verismo can cause confusion. In addition to referring to operas written in a realistic style, the term may also be used more broadly to refer to the entire output of the composers of the giovane scuola (“young school”), the generation of composers who were active in Italy during the period that the verismo style was created. One author (Alan Mallach) has proposed the term “plebian opera” to refer to operas that adhere to the contemporary and realistic subject matter for which the term verismo was originally coined. At the same time, Mallach questions the value of using a term such as verismo, which is supposedly descriptive of the subject and style of works, simply to identify an entire generation’s music-dramatic output. For most of the composers associated with verismo, traditionally veristic subjects accounted for only some of their operas. For instance, Mascagni wrote a pastoral comedy (L’amico Fritz), a symbolist work set in Japan (Iris), and a couple of medieval romances (Isabeau and Parisina). These works are far from typical verismo subject matter, yet they are written in the same general musical style as his more quintessential veristic subjects. In addition, there is disagreement among musicologists as to which operas are “verismo” operas and which are not. (Non-Italian operas are generally excluded.) Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and Puccini’s Tosca and Il tabarro are operas to which the term verismo is applied with little or no dispute. The term is sometimes also applied to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West. Because only three verismo works not by Puccini continue to appear regularly on stage (the aforementioned Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and Andrea Chénier), Puccini’s contribution has had lasting significance to the genre.

Some authors have attempted to trace the origins of verismo opera to works that preceded Cavalleria rusticana, such as Georges Bizet’s Carmen or Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata.

Verismo Singers

The verismo opera style featured music that required singers to perform more declamatory singing, in contrast to the traditional tenets of elegant, 19th century bel canto singing that had preceded the movement. Opera singers adapted to the demands of the new style. The most extreme exponents of verismo vocalism sang habitually in a vociferous fashion, often forfeiting legato to focus on the passionate aspect of the music. They would “beef up” the timbre of their voices, use excessive amounts of vocal fold mass on their top notes, and often employ a conspicuous vibrato in order to accentuate the emotionalism of their ardent interpretations. The results could be exciting in the theater, but such a strenuous mode of singing was not a recipe for vocal longevity. Some prominent practitioners of full-throttle verismo singing during the movement’s Italian life-span (circa 1890 to circa 1930) include the sopranos Eugenia Burzio, Rosina Storchio, and Adelaide Saraceni; the tenors Aureliano Pertile, Cesar Vezzani, and Amadeo Bassi; and the baritones Mario Sammarco and Eugenio Giraldoni. Their method of singing can be sampled on numerous 78-rpm gramophone recordings. See Michael Scott’s two-volume survey The Record of Singing, published in London by Duckworth in 1977/79, for an evaluation of most of these singers, and others of their Ilk, and a discussion of the adverse impact that verismo music had on singing standards in Italy.

Such great early 20th-century international operatic stars as Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle, and Titta Ruffo developed vocal techniques that harmoniously managed to combine fundamental bel canto precepts with a more “modern,” straightforward mode of ripe-toned singing when delivering verismo music, and their example has influenced operatic performers down to this day (see Scott).


La bohème is an opera in four acts composed by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. The world premiere performance of La bohème was in Turin on 1 February 1896 at the Teatro Regio, conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. Since then, La bohème has become part of the standard Italian opera repertory and is one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide.

In 1946, fifty years after the opera’s premiere, Toscanini conducted a performance of it on radio with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This performance was eventually released on records and on CD. It is the only recording of a Puccini opera by its original conductor (see Recordings below).


Place: Paris
Time: Around 1830

Act 1

In the four bohemians’ garret

Rodolfo’s garret—set design for act 1 of La bohème for the world premiere performance.
Figure 1. Rodolfo’s garret—set design for act 1 of La bohème for the world premiere performance.

Marcello is painting while Rodolfo gazes out of the window. They complain of the cold. In order to keep warm, they burn the manuscript of Rodolfo’s drama. Colline, the philosopher, enters shivering and disgruntled at not having been able to pawn some books. Schaunard, the musician of the group, arrives with food, wine, and cigars. He explains the source of his riches: a job with an eccentric English gentleman who ordered him to play his violin to a parrot until it died. The others hardly listen to his tale as they set up the table to eat and drink. Schaunard interrupts, telling them that they must save the food for the days ahead: tonight they will all celebrate his good fortune by dining at Cafe Momus, and he will pay.

The friends are interrupted by Benoît, the landlord, who arrives to collect the rent. They flatter him and ply him with wine. In his drunkenness, he begins to boast of his amorous adventures, but when he also reveals that he is married, they thrust him from the room—without the rent payment—in comic moral indignation. The rent money is divided for their evening out in the Quartier Latin.

Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline go out, but Rodolfo remains alone for a moment in order to finish an article he is writing, promising to join his friends soon. There is a knock at the door. It is a girl who lives in another room in the building. Her candle has blown out, and she has no matches; she asks Rodolfo to light it. She is briefly overcome with faintness, and Rodolfo helps her to a chair and offers her a glass of wine. She thanks him. After a few minutes, she says that she is better and must go. But as she turns to leave, she realizes that she has lost her key.

Her candle goes out in the draught and Rodolfo’s candle goes out too; the pair stumble in the dark. Rodolfo, eager to spend time with the girl, to whom he is already attracted, finds the key and pockets it, feigning innocence. He takes her cold hand (Che gelida manina—“What a cold little hand”) and tells her of his life as a poet, then asks her to tell him more about her life. The girl says her name is Mimì (Sì, mi chiamano Mimì—“Yes, they call me Mimì”) and describes her simple life as an embroiderer. Impatiently, the waiting friends call Rodolfo. He answers and turns to see Mimì bathed in moonlight (duet, Rodolfo and Mimì: O soave fanciulla—“Oh lovely girl”). They realize that they have fallen in love. Rodolfo suggests remaining at home with Mimì, but she decides to accompany him to the Cafe Momus. As they leave, they sing of their newfound love.

“Che gelida manina”

Here are the lyrics, both the original Italian and an English translation, for “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème. This is a commercial site, but the translation will be helpful to understand what Rodolfo says when he first meets the woman he falls in love with, Mimì.

“Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”

Here are the lyrics, both the original Italian and an English translation, for “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La bohème. This is a commercial site (about.com) so unfortunately there are some ads that get in the way, but the translation will be helpful to understand what Mimì says in response to Rodolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina.”

As on the last test, the question I would like you to ask yourself when you are listening to a piece is “What am I hearing?” I think a really good way to start is to listen for characteristics that might narrow down your choice to one or two possible genres. This exam is similar to Exam 2 in that there is a mixture of vocal and instrumental music, so the first thing to determine is whether or not there is singing.

I Hear Singing

If you hear singing then that immediately rules out the instrumental genres, such as Program Symphony or Nocturne. It must be an opera, a requiem, or an art song. How do you narrow it down? Again, ask yourself, “What am I hearing?”

I hear a male soloist with orchestra.

This narrows it down to two pieces, both of which are tenor arias. Don’t let this similarity worry you, however. These two arias are quite different from each other.

  • La donna è mobile, La Traviata. First of all, this is a very familiar tune that I suspect most of you have heard. It has become such a part of our culture that it’s not just a concert piece. It’s been featured in television commercials and comedy sketches many times. Another musical element to listen for is the “boom-chick-chick” accompaniment of the orchestra. This is a classic Verdi accompaniment, though in this case it is meant to represent the Duke, the character singing the aria, strumming his guitar. Lastly, the tempo is moderately fast, and the piece has an energetic swagger to it. You can almost picture the Duke strutting around the stage as he sings.
  • Che gelida manina, La Bohème. This piece has a very different quality as compared with the aria from Rigoletto. It has a slower tempo and a smooth, flowing feel. There is not a clearly defined and frequently repeated catchy tune. The music builds gradually to an emotional climax near the end.

I hear a female soloist with an orchestra.

This also narrows it down to two pieces, both of which are soprano arias and feature moderately slow tempos. The differences between these two works are subtle, so you’ll want to listen for a combination of less-obvious musical elements.

  • Die Liebestod, Tristan Und Isolde. The first thing I suggest you listen for in this piece is the importance of the orchestra. Remember that Wagner gave his all-important leitmotifs to both the orchestra and the singer, so both entities are on an equal dramatic footing. The orchestra is almost singing a duet with the soprano. In the other two pieces, especially the Mahler, you’ll get a stronger sense that the orchestra is backing up (or accompanying) the singer, not standing side by side with her as it does in Liebestod. Second, in Wagner’s operas, we do not hear separate recitatives and arias. He strove for an “endless melody” that I think is particularly evident in Liebestod. As you listen to the piece, you don’t get the sense that particular phrases of text or individual melodic ideas have begun, then ended. The music seems to flow continuously toward the emotional climax heard around the 5-minute mark that follows the text “In dem wogenden Schwall, in dem tönenden Schall” (In the growing swell, the surging sound).
  • Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, La Bohème. Puccini, like Wagner, preferred to blur the distinction between recitative and aria. Unlike Wagner, you will hear clear phrases begin and end. This fits the setting of the piece. The poor seamstress Mimì is introducing herself to Rodolfo after he has sung “Che gelida manina.” They are having a conversation, so it is fitting that in the beginning of “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì,” the singing is more speech-like and syllabic (one note per syllable of text). As the piece progresses, the intensity builds and the melody soars in the longer notes and emotional heights we’d expect from any aria. In addition to the more conversational delivery and clearer phrasing, there is a lighter, more hopeful emotion being expressed than in the Wagner. Listening for these differences in character and phrasing should assist in the identification of this piece.

I hear chorus and orchestra.

Once again we have multiple pieces that fit this description. There are three works that feature orchestra and choir: two Requiems and a Choral Symphony.

  • Messa da Requiem, II “Dies Irae.” This piece should be easily recognized for its fast tempo and ferocious intensity. “Dies Irae” means “day of wrath,” and in Verdi’s composition, that wrath represents the fear in the hearts of the wicked on judgment day. There is relatively little in the way of dynamic or expressive contrast within this piece. It is loud and aggressive almost all the way through. When the choir is not singing, you will hear extensive use of trumpets.
  • Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Ein Deutches Requiem. This piece provides quite a contrast to the Verdi. Contemplative in expression and moderate in tempo, this movement from Brahm’s German Requiem has none of the fire and brimstone of Verdi’s “Dies Irae.” There are contrasting textures within the piece. Homophonic sections alternate with polyphonic ones, with the second-to-last section of the piece featuring a mini-fugue.
  • Symphony No. 8, Finale. Mahler was not one to go for small gestures. He felt that the symphony was a musical universe that needed to encompass many other genres, both vocal and instrumental, on a grand scale. His 8th symphony is often called “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the size of both the orchestra and choruses—that’s right, multiple choirs. I think the massive size of the performing forces for this piece will serve as a means of distinguishing this piece from the other two choral/orchestral works. It’s also worth noting that this piece features vocal soloists along with the choirs. Depending on the excerpt, you may hear those soloists. If you do, that’s a dead giveaway for the finale of Mahler’s 8th symphony. While both the full works by Verdi and Brahms feature soloists, they are not heard in the movements on our playlist.

I hear a soloist with a piano.

This is an art song. There are two of these on your exam, and there is a very straightforward way to tell them apart: the gender of the singer. Because of this, I’m going to list them by that characteristic rather than by title as I did for the arias and the choral/orchestral works.

  • The singer is male. Schubert’s Erlking is the only art song that features a male (tenor) vocalist. That characteristic alone makes this an easy piece to identify, but again there are some other unique aspects to this song worth mentioning. First, it is a through-composed piece. That means that there are not multiple verses of text set to the same tune. The tune just keeps rolling forward with no structural repetition. There is a repeated figure in the accompaniment, however. The piano keeps playing a rapidly repeated note in the right hand. This is meant to represent the horse’s hooves as the father and son gallop home through the forest. Speaking of galloping, this is a piece with a fast tempo. Lastly, this song features four different characters: narrator, father, son, and erlking. While there is only one singer, he sings each of these parts in a slightly different voice
  • The singer is female. Robert Schumann’s “Du Ring an meinem Finger” is the only art song that features a female (mezzo-soprano) vocalist. Once again the singer’s voice will give away this piece, but you should still keep an ear out for some of the other significant musical characteristics of the song. The meter is duple and the tempo is slow. It is written in rondo form (ABACA), which is a bit unusual for an art song.

I Hear Instruments Only

If you hear only instruments, then that rules out the vocal genres like opera and art song/lied. As always, ask yourself, “What am I hearing?”

I hear solo piano.

This narrows it down to just one piece: Chopin’s Nocturne. All Chopin’s Nocturnes are generally brooding and introspective, and this piece is no exception. While the tempo of the piece is relatively slow, many students mistake the intensity and activity in the left hand as a faster tempo. The basic pulse or beat of the piece, though it speeds up and slows down somewhat (this is known as rubato), is uniformly slow and restrained. There are three basic themes over the course of the piece. The first theme is the most subdued, and it both opens and closes the piece. With its melancholy quality, it best typifies the mood of all Chopin’s Nocturnes. The second theme and third themes become progressively more active and passionate. The third theme shifts from the minor mode of the earlier two themes to a more heroic major. But regardless of the theme, the instrumentation of the piece, solo piano, will make this easy to identify should it appear on your exam.

I hear a violin soloist playing against an orchestra.

This is Brahms’s Violin Concerto, 3rd mvmt. You should not have difficulty identifying the piece, as it is the only concerto on the listening list. If you hear solo violin vs. orchestra, it’s got to be the Brahms. Though form may not be easy to hear in a short excerpt, remember that Brahms was a late-Romantic traditionalist and as such made use of the traditional forms from the Classical era. In this case that means rondo form for the final movement of a concerto, just as we heard in the Classical era with Mozart’s concerto for horn. One more thing to listen for is the extensive use of double stops, the playing of two strings at once, by the violin soloist. Normally when we hear solo violin, we hear one note at a time. Double stops make possible two notes at a time. This is very difficult to do, and this movement features some truly virtuosic playing.

I hear an orchestra.

There are three purely orchestral pieces on this test. Two are clear examples of program music—namely, the program symphony (Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique) and the symphonic poem (Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet). The third is an example of absolute music and nationalism—namely, a symphony (Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9) meant to evoke American folk elements. Remember that even though Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 seems like it ought to be in this list, the finale, which is the piece on our listening list, features a choir and vocal soloists, so it is not purely instrumental. Let’s talk about the characteristics of each and how you can tell them apart. Because there aren’t single characteristics, such as tempo or instrumentation, that makes these pieces clearly identifiable. I’m going to list them by title and review each piece (just as we did with the operatic works).

  • Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, 5th mvmt. The fantastic, supernatural scene being depicted in this program symphony allows Berlioz to give free rein to one of his greatest talents: orchestration. Berlioz was a master at pulling all sorts of different sounds out of the orchestra. You’ll hear the idée fixe, a lyrical tune found in each of this symphony’s movements, transformed into a crude dance played by the clarinet; tolling funeral bells precede another preexisting tune, the dies irae, in the tubas and bassoons (low brass and woodwind instruments); and strings playing with the wood of the bow (col legno) create a crackling sound meant to depict the flames of hell. Knowing the story of the piece and listening for the unusual instrumentation used to depict it will help you ID this orchestral work. The overall tempo of this piece is fast, though to better tell the story, it sometimes briefly slows down or pauses. Even in the slower moments, Berlioz maintains the intensity and foreboding for which this movement is so well known. That dark intensity, generally fast tempo, and unique orchestration sets the piece apart from all the other orchestral works on this exam.
  • Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The composer here has taken the well-known play and boiled its contents down to three themes. You should definitely familiarize yourself with all three, though the third theme truly stands out. The three themes each have their own tempo and character. The first theme is the Friar Lawrence theme, which is slow and sad (minor). The woodwinds are the dominant instruments in this theme. The second theme represents the Capulets and Montagues and their blood feud. The fast, agitated theme, complete with cymbal crashes, is played by the full orchestra and calls to mind the various duels we see in the play. The third theme, the love theme, is extremely well-known and probably the easiest to recognize. It is slow and sweeping, with an almost overpowering sweetness. You’ve probably heard it during a commercial or a comedic scene in a movie when two people are running toward each other in slow motion through a field. Unfortunately, in popular culture, this orchestral theme has become the default soundtrack for any romantic moment that is over-the-top or cheesy. Don’t let that association ruin the piece for you (though it should make it easier to identify). This is powerfully expressive orchestral melodic writing by a composer that knew how to weave emotional music better than almost anyone else.
  • Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” 2nd mvmt. Like Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, this movement has a theme that has taken on a life of its own. Many people know this tune as the song “Goin’ Home.” When they hear the symphony, they think, “Oh he wrote that song into the symphony,” but of course they’ve got it backward—the symphony came first. Only after the symphony had become popular was this theme separated from the larger work and turned into a song. This theme will be played by different instruments at different times (English horn, full strings, solo cello), so you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the tune, not the instrumentation. The tempo of this movement is slow, and the character is nostalgic and sweet. You will definitely not get this piece mixed up with the Berlioz.

Titles, Composers, and Genres for Exam 4

Title Composer Genre
Erlking Franz Schubert Art Song/Lied
Du Ring an meinem Finger Robert Schumann Art Song/Lied
Symphony Fantastique, 5th mvmt. Hector Berlioz Program Symphony
Romeo and Juliet Peter Tchaikovsky Symphonic Poem
Nocturne in C# minor Frederic Chopin Nocturne
La donna è mobile, La Traviata Giuseppe Verdi Opera
Messa da Requiem, II “Dies Irae” Giuseppe Verdi Requiem
Die Liebestod, Tristan Und Isolde Richard Wagner Opera
Che gelida manina, La Bohème Giacomo Puccini Opera
Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, La Bohème Giacomo Puccini Opera
Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” 2nd mvmt. Antonin Dvořák Symphony
Violin Concerto, 3rd mvmt. Johannes Brahms Concerto
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Ein Deutches Requiem Johannes Brahms Requiem
Symphony No. 8, Finale Gustav Mahler Choral Symphony

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I suspect that if you conducted a survey where you played a variety of classical works for a group of fellow students and asked them to indicate whether they’d heard each piece before, Tchaikovsky’s music would rank as some of the most recognized. While many could only name his ballet “The Nutcracker,” it is likely that many will have heard portions of the 1812 Overture, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Romeo and Juliet (the piece on our playlist). He had a gift for writing melodies that were immediately captivating. This did not always earn him the praise of critics, but it has ensured ongoing popularity. Please read this biographical summary of Tchaikovsky.

These paragraphs provide a useful explanation of the three main melodic themes of the piece, Romeo and Juliet. Don’t worry too much about the discussion of harmony (what keys each theme is in). Just focus on how Tchaikovsky uses the three melodic ideas to depict elements of Shakespeare’s play.

Romeo and Juliet: Musical structure

An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene
Figure 1. An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene.

Although styled as an “Overture-Fantasy” by the composer, the overall design is a symphonic poem in sonata form with an introduction and an epilogue. The work is based on three main strands of the Shakespeare story. The first strand, written in F-sharp minor, following Mily Balakirev’s suggestion, is the introduction representing the saintly Friar Laurence. Here there is a foreboding of doom from the lower strings. The Friar Laurence theme is heard in F minor, with plucked strings, before ending up in E minor. The introduction is chorale-like.

Eventually, a single B minor chord with a D natural in the bass passed back and forth between strings and woodwinds grows into the second strand in B minor, the agitated theme of the warring Capulets and Montagues, including a reference to the sword fight, depicted by crashing cymbals. There are agitated, quick sixteenth notes. The forceful irregular rhythms of the street music point ahead to Igor Stravinsky and beyond. The action suddenly slows, the key changing from B minor to D-flat (as suggested by Balakirev), and we hear the opening bars of the “love theme,” the third strand, passionate and yearning in character but always with an underlying current of anxiety.

The love theme signifies the couple’s first meeting and the scene at Juliet’s balcony. The English horn represents Romeo, while the flutes represent Juliet. Then the battling strand returns, this time with more intensity and build-up, with the Friar Laurence Theme heard with agitation. The strings enter with a lush, hovering melody over which the flute and oboe eventually soar with the love theme once again, this time loud and in D major, signaling the development section and their consummated marriage, and finally heard in E major, and two large orchestra hits with cymbal crashes signal the suicide of the two lovers. A final battle theme is played, then a soft, slow dirge in B major ensues, with timpani playing a repeated triplet pattern and tuba holding a B natural for 16 bars. The woodwinds play a sweet homage to the lovers, and a final allusion to the love theme brings in the climax, beginning with a huge crescendo B natural roll of the timpani, and the orchestra plays homophonic shouts of a B major chord before the final bar, with full orchestra belting out a powerful B natural to close the overture.

Introduction to the Late Romantic Era

This section contains all the readings on important composers and genres of the later portion of the Romantic era. Since we covered composers whose primary focus was opera in a separate module, our emphasis now will be on composers who tended to work in larger orchestral genres. We will also examine the role of nationalism in late Romantic music.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slide Show: Late Romantic Era
  • Symphonic Poem
  • Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Nationalism
  • Antonin Dvořák
  • Symphony No. 9, From the New World
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Brahms’s Violin Concerto
  • German Requiem
  • Gustav Mahler
  • Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand


Late Romantic Music from Lumen Learning

Symphony No. 9 from the New World

Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” is one of his best-known works. It was an immediate success in its day and has been widely performed since. Please pay special attention to the section titled “Influences,” as it explores his use of American folk elements in the piece.


The Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” Op. 95, B. 178 (Czech: Symfonie č. 9 e moll „Z nového světa“), popularly known as the New World Symphony, was composed by Antonín Dvořák in 1893 while he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892 to 1895. It is by far his most popular symphony and one of the most popular of all symphonies. In older literature and recordings, this symphony was often numbered as Symphony No. 5. Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969.


This symphony is scored for an orchestra of at least the following:

  • 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo)
  • 2 oboes (one doubling English horn)
  • 2 clarinets in A
  • 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns in E, C and F
  • 2 trumpets in E, C and E
  • 2 tenor trombones
  • Bass trombone
  • Tuba (second movement only)
  • Timpani
  • Triangle (third movement only)
  • Cymbals (fourth movement only)
  • Strings

Listen: Movements

The piece has four movements. Please listen to each of the movements to hear the entire symphony.

Adagio, 4/8—Allegro molto, 2/4, E minor

Largo, common time, D-flat major, then later C-sharp minor

Scherzo: Molto vivace—Poco sostenuto, 3/4, E minor

Allegro con fuoco, common time, E minor, ends in E major


Dvořák was interested in Native American music and the African-American spirituals he heard in America. As director of the National Conservatory, he encountered an African-American student, Harry T. Burleigh, later a composer himself, who sang traditional spirituals to him and said that Dvořák had absorbed their “spirit” before writing his own melodies. Dvořák stated:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.

The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered on December 16, 1893, at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Anton Seidl. A day earlier, in an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, Dvořák further explained how Native American music had been an influence on this symphony:

I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.

In the same article, Dvořák stated that he regarded the symphony’s second movement as a “sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera . . . which will be based upon Longfellow’s [The Song of] Hiawatha” (Dvořák never actually wrote such a piece). He also wrote that the third movement scherzo was “suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.”

In 1893, a newspaper interview quoted Dvořák as saying, “I found that the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical” and that “the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland.” Most historians agree that Dvořák is referring to the pentatonic scale, which is typical of each of these musical traditions.

In a 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, prominent musicologist Joseph Horowitz asserts that African-American spirituals were a major influence on Dvořák’s music written in America, quoting him from an 1893 interview in the New York Herald as saying, “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” Dvořák did, it seems, borrow rhythms from the music of his native Bohemia, as notably in his Slavonic Dances, and the pentatonic scale in some of his music written in America from African-American and/or Native American sources. Statements that he borrowed melodies are often made but seldom supported by specifics. One verified example is the song of the Scarlet Tanager in the Quartet. Michael Steinberg writes that a flute solo theme in the first movement of the symphony resembles the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Leonard Bernstein averred that the symphony was truly multinational in its foundations.

Dvořák was influenced not only by music he had heard but by what he had seen in America. He wrote that he would not have composed his American pieces as he had if he had not seen America. It has been said that Dvořák was inspired by the American “wide open spaces,” such as prairies he may have seen on his trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893. Notices about several performances of the symphony include the phrase “wide open spaces” about what inspired the symphony and/or about the feelings it conveys to listeners.

Dvořák was also influenced by the style and techniques used by earlier classical composers, including Beethoven and Schubert. The falling fourths and timpani strokes in the New World Symphony’s Scherzo movement evoke the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. In his fourth movement, Dvořák’s use of flashbacks to prior movements is reminiscent of Beethoven quoting prior movements as part of the opening Presto of the last movement.


At the premiere in Carnegie Hall, the end of every movement was met with thunderous clapping, and Dvořák felt obliged to stand up and bow. This was one of the greatest public triumphs of Dvořák’s career. When the symphony was published, several European orchestras soon performed it. Alexander Mackenzie conducted the London Philharmonic Society in the European premiere on June 21, 1894. Clapham says the symphony became “one of the most popular of all time,” and at a time when the composer’s main works were being welcomed in no more than ten countries, this symphony reached the rest of the musical world and has become a “universal favorite.” It is performed [as of 1978] more often “than any other symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, London,” and is in “tremendous demand in Japan.”

Several themes from the symphony have been used widely in films, TV shows, anime, video games, and advertisements.

The Song “Goin’ Home”

The theme from the Largo was adapted into the spiritual-like song “Goin’ Home,” often mistakenly considered a folk song or traditional spiritual, by Dvořák’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote the lyrics in 1922.

Symphonic Poem

We have already explored the interest of early Romantic composers in program music and the application of programmatic principles to traditional genres like the symphony. On this page you’ll read about later Romantic composers’ pursuit of a new structure in which to use instrumental music as a means of depicting a story, picture, or landscape. As you’ll read, composers turned from the symphony to the overture. We have encountered overtures in previous eras. An overture is a prelude to a larger work, usually a staged work such as an opera or ballet, that often previews some of the important melodic themes that will be heard over the course of the work. Overtures from popular operas were often later performed as stand-alone concert pieces. Audiences enjoyed the musical reminder of the story and production they had previously seen. In time, composers began to write overtures that were not connected to a larger musical work but rather referred to some other well-known story or scene. The linked article details how this practice evolved into the genre known as the symphonic poem.


A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral or concert band music, usually in a single continuous section (a movement), that illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt first applied the term to his 13 works in this vein. In its aesthetic objectives, the symphonic poem is in some ways related to opera. While it does not use a sung text, it seeks, like opera, a union of music and drama.

While many symphonic poems may compare in size and scale to symphonic movements (or even reach the length of an entire symphony), they are unlike traditional classical symphonic movements in that their music is intended to inspire listeners to imagine or consider scenes, images, specific ideas, or moods and not to focus on following traditional patterns of musical form (e.g., sonata form). This intention to inspire listeners was a direct consequence of Romanticism, which encouraged literary, pictorial, and dramatic associations in music. Musical works that attempt to inspire listeners in this way are often referred to as program music, while music that has no such associations may be called absolute music.

Some piano and chamber works, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht, have similarities with symphonic poems in their overall intent and effect. However, the term symphonic poem is generally accepted to refer to orchestral works. A symphonic poem may stand on its own, or it can be part of a series combined into a symphonic suite. For example, The Swan of Tuonela (1895) is a tone poem from Jean Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite. A symphonic poem can also be part of a group of interrelated works, such as Vltava (The Moldau) as part of the six-work cycle Má vlast by Bedřich Smetana. Also, while the terms “symphonic poem” and “tone poem” have often been used interchangeably, some composers such as Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius have preferred the latter term for pieces that were less symphonic in design and in which there is no special emphasis on thematic or tonal contrast.

According to Macdonald, the symphonic poem met three 19th-century aesthetic goals: it related music to outside sources; it often combined or compressed multiple movements into a single principal section; and it elevated instrumental program music to an aesthetic level that could be regarded as equivalent to or higher than opera. The symphonic poem remained popular from the 1840s until the 1920s, when the genre suffered a severe decline in popularity.


In the second quarter of the 19th century, the future of the symphonic genre came into doubt. While many composers continued to write symphonies during the 1820s and ’30s, “there was a growing sense that these works were aesthetically far inferior to Beethoven’s. . . . The real question was not so much whether symphonies could still be written, but whether the genre could continue to flourish and grow.” Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Niels Gade achieved successes with their symphonies, putting at least a temporary stop to the debate as to whether the genre was dead. Nevertheless, composers increasingly turned to the “more compact form” of the concert overture “as a vehicle within which to blend musical, narrative and pictorial ideas.” Examples included Mendelssohn’s overtures A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) and The Hebrides (1830).

Between 1845 and 1847, Franco-Belgian composer César Franck wrote an orchestral piece based on Victor Hugo’s poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. The work exhibits characteristics of a symphonic poem, and some musicologists, such as Norman Demuth and Julien Tiersot, consider it the first of its genre, preceding Liszt’s compositions. However, Franck did not publish or perform his piece; neither did he set about defining the genre. Liszt’s determination to explore and promote the symphonic poem gained him recognition as the genre’s inventor.


The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt desired to expand single-movement works beyond the concert overture form. The music of overtures is to inspire listeners to imagine scenes, images, or moods; Liszt intended to combine those programmatic qualities with a scale and musical complexity normally reserved for the opening movement of classical symphonies. The opening movement, with its interplay of contrasting themes under sonata form, was normally considered the most important part of the symphony. To achieve his objectives, Liszt needed a more flexible method of developing musical themes than sonata form would allow, but one that would preserve the overall unity of a musical composition.


The 19th century saw a rise in nationalist sentiment, and this cultural current was mirrored in the music of the day. Many composers used program music to depict nationalist themes. Others used elements of folk music in their compositions.


As a musical movement, nationalism emerged early in the 19th century in connection with political independence movements and was characterized by an emphasis on national musical elements such as the use of folk songs, folk dances, or rhythms or on the adoption of nationalist subjects for operas, symphonic poems, or other forms of music (Kennedy 2006). As new nations were formed in Europe, nationalism in music was a reaction against the dominance of the mainstream European classical tradition as composers started to separate themselves from the standards set by Italian, French, and especially German traditionalists (Miles n.d.).

More precise considerations of the point of origin are a matter of some dispute. One view holds that it began with the war of liberation against Napoleon, leading to a receptive atmosphere in Germany for Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (1821) and, later, Richard Wagner’s epic dramas based on Teutonic legends. At around the same time, Poland’s struggle for freedom from Czarist Russia produced a nationalist spirit in the piano works of Frédéric Chopin, and slightly later Italy’s aspiration to independence from Austria resonated in many of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (Machlis 1979, 125–26). Countries or regions most commonly linked to musical nationalism include Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Scandinavia, Spain, UK, Latin America, and the United States.

Symphony No. 8—Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a symphony in only the loosest sense. One of his best-known works, it follows almost none of the standard conventions for a symphony. For example, it has only two movements, and it calls for multiple choirs in addition to an enormous orchestra.


Munich, September 1910. Final rehearsal for the world premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, in the Neue Musik-Festhalle.
Figure 1. Munich, September 1910. Final rehearsal for the world premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, in the Neue Musik-Festhalle.

The Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major by Gustav Mahler is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical concert repertoire. Because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces, it is frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand,” although the work is often performed with fewer than a thousand, and Mahler himself did not sanction the name. The work was composed in a single inspired burst at Maiernigg in southern Austria in the summer of 1906. The last of Mahler’s works that was premiered in his lifetime, the symphony was a critical and popular success when he conducted its first performance in Munich on 12 September 1910.

The fusion of song and symphony had been a characteristic of Mahler’s early works. In his “middle” compositional period after 1901, a change of direction led him to produce three purely instrumental symphonies. The Eighth, marking the end of the middle period, returns to a combination of orchestra and voice in a symphonic context. The structure of the work is unconventional; instead of the normal framework of several movements, the piece is in two parts. Part I is based on the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, Veni creator spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”), and Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust. The two parts are unified by a common idea, that of redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes.

Mahler had been convinced from the start of the work’s significance; in renouncing the pessimism that had marked much of his music, he offered the Eighth as an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit. In the period following the composer’s death, performances were comparatively rare. However, from the mid-20th century onward, the symphony has been heard regularly in concert halls all over the world and has been recorded many times. While recognizing its wide popularity, modern critics have divided opinions on the work; Theodor W. Adorno, Robert Simpson, and Jonathan Carr found its optimism unconvincing and considered it artistically and musically inferior to Mahler’s other symphonies. However, it has also been compared—by Deryck Cooke—to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a defining human statement for its century.

Part II: Closing scene from Goethe’s Faust

The second part of the symphony follows the narrative of the final stages in Goethe’s poem—the journey of Faust’s soul, rescued from the clutches of Mephistopheles, on to its final ascent into heaven. Landmann’s proposed sonata structure for the movement is based on a division, after an orchestral prelude, into five sections, which he identifies musically as an exposition, three development episodes, and a finale. Since we only have the finale on our playlist, we’ll skip discussing the other episodes of Part II.


The final development episode is a hymn-like tenor solo and chorus, in which Doctor Marianus calls on the penitents to “Gaze aloft.” A short orchestral passage follows, scored for an eccentric chamber group consisting of piccolo, flute, harmonium, celesta, piano, harps, and a string quartet. This acts as a transition to the finale, the Chorus Mysticus, which begins in E-flat major almost imperceptibly—Mahler’s notation here is Wie ein Hauch, “like a breath.” The sound rises in a gradual crescendo as the solo voices alternately join or contrast with the chorus. As the climax approaches, many themes are reprised: the love theme, Gretchen’s song, the Accende from Part I. Finally, as the chorus concludes with “Eternal Womanhood draws us on high,” the off-stage brass re-enters with a final salute on the Veni creator motif to end the symphony with a triumphant flourish.

Johannes Brahms

Brahms is one of the greats of musical history. He had a gift for combining the more complex harmonic practices of the Romantic era with the clear musical structures of the Classical era. Because he composed primarily absolute music (as opposed to the program music that had become so popular in the 19th century), he is considered a more conservative composer. As you read, pay special attention to his interactions with other composers we have studied, such as Robert Schumann and Anton Dvořák.


Johannes Brahms
Figure 1. Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833–3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist. Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria. In his lifetime, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable. He is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs,” a comment originally made by the 19th-century conductor Hans von Bülow.

Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. He worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends). Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.

Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers. Brahms aimed to honor the “purity” of these venerable “German” structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms’s works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers.


Early Years

Photograph from 1891 of the building in Hamburg where Brahms was born. Brahms’s family occupied part of the first floor (second floor to Americans), behind the two double windows on the left hand side. The building was destroyed by bombing in 1943.
Figure 2. Photograph from 1891 of the building in Hamburg where Brahms was born. Brahms’s family occupied part of the first floor (second floor to Americans), behind the two double windows on the left-hand side. The building was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Brahms’s father, Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), came to Hamburg from Dithmarschen, seeking a career as a town musician. He was proficient in several instruments but found employment mostly playing the horn and double bass. In 1830, he married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), a seamstress never previously married, who was seventeen years older than he was. Johannes Brahms had an older sister and a younger brother. Initially, they lived near the city docks, in the Gängeviertel quarter of Hamburg, for six months, before moving to a small house on the Dammtorwall, a small street near the Inner Alster.

Johann Jakob gave his son his first musical training. He studied piano from the age of seven with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. Owing to the family’s poverty, the adolescent Brahms had to contribute to the family’s income by playing the piano in dance halls. Early biographers found this shocking and played down this portion of his life. Some modern writers have suggested that this early experience warped Brahms’s later relations with women, but Brahms scholars Styra Avins and Kurt Hoffmann have questioned the possibility. Jan Swafford has contributed to the discussion.

For a time, Brahms also learned the cello. After his early piano lessons with Otto Cossel, Brahms studied piano with Eduard Marxsen, who had studied in Vienna with Ignaz von Seyfried (a pupil of Mozart) and Carl Maria von Bocklet (a close friend of Schubert). The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg but did not become well known as a pianist until he made a concert tour at the age of nineteen. (In later life, he frequently took part in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist, accompanist, or participant in chamber music.) He conducted choirs from his early teens and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.

Meeting Joachim and Liszt

He began to compose quite early in life but later destroyed most copies of his first works; for instance, Louise Japha, a fellow-pupil of Marxsen, reported a piano sonata that Brahms had played or improvised at the age of 11 had been destroyed. His compositions did not receive public acclaim until he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi in April and May 1853. On this tour, he met Joseph Joachim at Hanover and went on to the Court of Weimar where he met Franz Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. According to several witnesses of Brahms’s meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms’s Scherzo, Op. 4, at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms’s failure to praise Liszt’s Sonata in B minor wholeheartedly (Brahms supposedly fell asleep during a performance of the recently composed work), and they parted company shortly afterward. Brahms later excused himself, saying that he could not help it, having been exhausted by his travels.

Brahms and the Schumanns

Joachim had given Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, and after a walking tour in the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf and was welcomed into the Schumann family on arrival there. Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old’s talent, published an article entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths) in the 28 October 1853 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik alerting the public to the young man, who, he claimed, was “destined to give ideal expression to the times.”[7] This pronouncement impressed people who were admirers of Robert or Clara Schumann; for example, in Hamburg, a music publisher and the conductor of the Philharmonic,[8] but it was received with some skepticism by others. It may have increased Brahms’s self-critical need to perfect his works. He wrote to Robert, “Revered Master,” in November 1853, that his praise “will arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public that I don’t know how I can begin to fulfil them . . .”[9] While he was in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing a sonata for Joachim; this is known as the “F-A-E Sonata—Free but Lonely” (German: Frei aber einsam). Schumann’s wife, the composer and pianist Clara, wrote in her diary about his first visit that

[Brahms] is one of those who comes as if straight from God.—He played us sonatas, scherzos etc. of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form . . . what he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made. He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra.

After Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Clara was “in despair,” expecting the Schumanns’ eighth child. Brahms hurried to Düsseldorf. He and/or Joachim, Dietrich, and Julius Otto Grimm visited Clara often in March 1854 to divert her mind from Robert’s tragedy by playing music for or with her. Clara wrote in her diary,

That good Brahms always shows himself a most sympathetic friend. He does not say much, but one can see in his face . . . how he grieves with me for the loved one whom he so highly reveres. Besides, he is so kind in seizing every opportunity of cheering me by means of anything musical. From so young a man I cannot but be doubly conscious of the sacrifice, for a sacrifice it undoubtedly is for anyone to be with me now.

Later, to help Clara and her many children, Brahms lodged above the Schumann apartment in a three-story house, setting his musical career aside temporarily. Clara was not allowed to visit Robert until two days before his death. Brahms was able to visit him several times and so could act as a go-between. The Schumanns employed a housekeeper, “Bertha” in Düsseldorf and later Elisabeth Werner in Berlin. There was also a hired cook in Berlin, “Josephine.” When the Schumanns’ oldest child and daughter, Marie, born 1841, was of age, she took over as housekeeper and, when needed, as cook. Clara was often away on concert tours, some lasting months, or sometimes in the summer for cures, and in 1854–1856, Brahms also was away part of the time, leaving the staff to manage the household. Clara much appreciated Brahms’s support as a kindred musical spirit.

In a concert in Leipzig in October 1854, Clara played the Andante and Scherzo from Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, “the first time his music was played in public.”

Brahms and Clara had a very close and lifelong but unusual relationship. They had great affection but also respect for one another. Brahms urged in 1887 that all his and Clara’s letters to each other should be destroyed. Actually Clara kept quite a number of letters Brahms had sent her and, at Marie’s urging, refrained from destroying many of the letters Brahms had returned. Eventually correspondence between Clara and Brahms in German was published. Some of Brahms’s earliest letters to Clara show him deeply in love with her. Clara’s preserved letters to Brahms, except for one, begin much later, in 1858. Selected letters or excerpts from them, some to or from Brahms, and diary entries of Clara’s have been translated into English. The earliest excerpted and translated letter from Brahms to Clara was in October 1854. Hans Gál cautions that the preserved correspondence may have “passed through Clara’s censorship.”

Brahms felt a strong conflict between love of Clara and respect for her and Robert, leading him to allude at one point to suicidal thoughts. Not long after Robert died, Brahms decided he had to break away from the Schumann household. He took leave rather brusquely, leaving Clara feeling hurt. But Brahms and Clara kept up correspondence. Brahms joined Clara and some of her children for some summer sojourns. In 1862, Clara bought a house in Lichtental, then adjoining, since 1909 included in Baden-Baden, and lived there with her remaining family from 1863 to 1873. Brahms from 1865 to 1874 spent some summers living in an apartment nearby in a house which is now a museum, the “Brahmshaus” (Brahms house). Brahms appears in later years as a rather avuncular figure in Eugenie Schumann’s account. Clara and Brahms took a concert tour together in November–December 1868 in Vienna, then in early 1869 to England, then Holland; the tour ended in April 1869. After Clara moved from Lichtental to Berlin in 1873, the two saw each other less often, as Brahms had his home in Vienna since 1863.

Clara was 14 years older than Brahms. In a letter to her on 24 May 1856, two and a half years after meeting her and after two years either together or corresponding, Brahms wrote that he continued to call her the German polite form “Sie” of “you” and hesitated to use the familiar form “Du.” Clara agreed that they call one another “Du,” writing in her diary, “I could not refuse, for indeed I love him like a son.” Brahms wrote on 31 May:

I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and do as many good things for you, as you would like. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can hardly express it. I should like to call you darling and lots of other names, without ever getting enough of adoring you.

The rest of that letter, and most later preserved letters, are about music and musical people, updating one another about their travels and experiences. Brahms much valued Clara’s opinions as a composer: “There was no composition by Brahms that was not shown to Clara the moment it was in shape to be communicated. She remained his faithfully devoted adviser.” In a letter to Joachim in 1859, three years after Robert’s death, Brahms wrote about Clara:

I believe that I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her and even—I don’t know, it seems so natural that she would not take it ill.

Brahms never married, despite strong feelings for several women and despite entering into an engagement, soon broken off, with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859. It seems that Brahms was rather indiscreet about the relationship while it lasted, which troubled his friends. After breaking off the engagement, Brahms wrote to Agathe, “I love you! I must see you again, but I am incapable of bearing fetters. Please write me whether I may come again to clasp you in my arms, to kiss you, and tell you that I love you.” But they never saw one another again.

Detmold and Hamburg

After Robert Schumann’s death at the sanatorium in 1856, Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies’ choir, and Detmold in the Principality of Lippe, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1, his first orchestral composition to be performed publicly, in 1859. He first visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter and, in 1863, was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Though he resigned the position the following year and entertained the idea of taking up conducting posts elsewhere, he based himself increasingly in Vienna and soon made his home there. From 1872 to 1875, he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; afterward, he accepted no formal position. He declined an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Cambridge in 1877 but accepted one from the University of Breslau in 1879 and composed the Academic Festival Overture as a gesture of appreciation.

He had been composing steadily throughout the 1850s and ’60s, but his music had evoked divided critical responses, and the first Piano Concerto had been badly received in some of its early performances. His works were labelled old-fashioned by the “New German School,” whose principal figures included Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Hector Berlioz. Brahms admired some of Wagner’s music and admired Liszt as a great pianist, but the conflict between the two schools, known as the War of the Romantics, soon embroiled all of musical Europe. In the Brahms camp were his close friends: Clara Schumann, Joachim, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, and the leading Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth. In 1860, Brahms attempted to organize a public protest against some of the wilder excesses of the Wagnerians’ music. This took the form of a manifesto, written by Brahms and Joachim jointly. The manifesto, which was published prematurely with only three supporting signatures, was a failure, and he never engaged in public polemics again.

Years of Popularity

It was the premiere of A German Requiem, his largest choral work, in Bremen, in 1868, that confirmed Brahms’s European reputation and led many to accept that he had conquered Beethoven and the symphony. This may have given him the confidence finally to complete a number of works that he had wrestled with over many years, such as the cantata Rinaldo, his first string quartet, third piano quartet, and most notably his first symphony. This appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and a version of the first movement seen by some of his friends) in the early 1860s. The other three symphonies then followed in 1877, 1883, and 1885. From 1881, he was able to try out his new orchestral works with the Meiningen Court Orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen, whose conductor was Hans von Bülow. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1881 in Pest.

Brahms’s grave in the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), Vienna
Figure 3. Brahms’s grave in the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), Vienna.

Brahms frequently traveled, both for business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878 onward, he often visited Italy in the springtime, and he usually sought out a pleasant rural location in which to compose during the summer. He was a great walker and especially enjoyed spending time in the open air, where he felt that he could think more clearly.

In 1889, one Theo Wangemann, a representative of American inventor Thomas Edison, visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP of early piano performances (compiled by Gregor Benko). Although the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer. Analysts and scholars remain divided, however, as to whether the voice that introduces the piece is that of Wangemann or Brahms. Several attempts have been made to improve the quality of this historic recording; a “denoised” version was produced at Stanford University that claims to solve the mystery.

In 1889, Brahms was named an honorary citizen of Hamburg, until 1948 the only one born in Hamburg.

Brahms and Dvořák

In 1875, the composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was still virtually unknown outside the Prague region. Brahms was on the jury that awarded the Vienna State Prize for composition to Dvořák three times, first in February 1875 and later in 1876 and 1877. Brahms also recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who commissioned the highly successful Slavonic Dances. Within a few years, Dvořák gained world renown. In 1892, he was appointed Director of the newly established National Conservatory in New York.

Later Years

In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death, he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114; Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891); and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116–119, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896).

While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer (sources differ on whether this was of the liver or pancreas). His last appearance in public was on 3 March 1897, when he saw Hans Richter conduct his Symphony No. 4. There was an ovation after each of the four movements. His condition gradually worsened, and he died a month later, on 3 April 1897, aged 63. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, under a monument by Victor Horta and the sculptor Ilse von Twardowski-Conrat.


Later that year, the British composer Hubert Parry, who considered Brahms the greatest artist of the time, wrote an orchestral Elegy for Brahms. This was never played in Parry’s lifetime, receiving its first performance at a memorial concert for Parry himself in 1918.

From 1904 to 1914, Brahms’s friend, the music critic Max Kalbeck, published an eight-volume biography of Brahms, but this has never been translated into English. Between 1906 and 1922, the Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft (German Brahms Society) published 16 numbered volumes of Brahms’s correspondence, at least 7 of which were edited by Kalbeck. An additional 7 volumes of Brahms’s correspondence were published later, including two volumes with Clara Schumann, edited by Marie Schumann.

Style and Influences

Brahms maintained a Classical sense of form and order in his works—in contrast to the opulence of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and “pure music” as opposed to the “New German” embrace of program music.

Brahms in mid-career
Figure 4. Brahms in mid-career.

Brahms venerated Beethoven: in the composer’s home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed, and some passages in his works are reminiscent of Beethoven’s style. Brahms’s First Symphony bears strongly the influence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as the two works are both in C minor and end in the struggle toward a C major triumph. The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is also reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, and when this resemblance was pointed out to Brahms, he replied that any dunce could see that. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” However, the similarity of Brahms’s music to that of late Beethoven had first been noted as early as November 1853, in a letter from Albert Dietrich to Ernst Naumann.

A German Requiem was partially inspired by his mother’s death in 1865 (at which time he composed a funeral march that was to become the basis of Part Two, Denn alles Fleisch), but it also incorporates material from a symphony that he started in 1854 but abandoned following Schumann’s suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem “belonged to Schumann.” The first movement of this abandoned Symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto.

Brahms loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works and edited performing editions. He studied the music of pre-classical composers, including Giovanni Gabrieli, Johann Adolph Hasse, Heinrich Schütz, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and, especially, Johann Sebastian Bach. His friends included leading musicologists, and, with Friedrich Chrysander, he edited an edition of the works of François Couperin. Brahms also edited works by C. P. E. and W. F. Bach. He looked to older music for inspiration in the art of counterpoint; the themes of some of his works are modeled on Baroque sources such as Bach’s The Art of Fugue in the fugal finale of Cello Sonata No. 1 or the same composer’s Cantata No. 150 in the passacaglia theme of the Fourth Symphony’s finale.

The early Romantic composers had a major influence on Brahms, particularly Schumann, who encouraged Brahms as a young composer. During his stay in Vienna in 1862–63, Brahms became particularly interested in the music of Franz Schubert. The latter’s influence may be identified in works by Brahms dating from the period, such as the two piano quartets Op. 25 and Op. 26 and the Piano Quintet, which alludes to Schubert’s String Quintet and Grand Duo for piano four hands. The influence of Chopin and Mendelssohn on Brahms is less obvious, although occasionally one can find in his works what seems to be an allusion to one of theirs (for example, Brahms’s Scherzo, Op. 4, alludes to Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor; the scherzo movement in Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, alludes to the finale of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor).

Brahms considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers’ innovations in extended tonality would result in the rule of tonality being broken altogether. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as the latter grew in stature and popularity, he was enthusiastically receptive of the early Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Brahms himself, according to many sources, deeply admired Wagner’s music, confining his ambivalence only to the dramaturgical precepts of Wagner’s theory.

Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. His Hungarian Dances were among his most profitable compositions.

Brahms Violin Concerto

Rather than having you read about this great violin concerto, I’d like you to listen to this discussion of the work on NPR. They spend some time talking about the particular recording that they are reviewing, but most of the discussion focuses on the work itself. There is one term that, while not mentioned in the recorded discussion, is very important to know when listening to this piece: double-stop. Double-stop is the term used when a violinist (or other bowed stringed instruments such as viola or cello) plays two strings at once instead of playing a single string, which is the norm. You’ll hear extensive use of double stops in both the 1st and 3rd movements of this concerto (the 3rd is the only movement on our playlist).

Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák is an excellent example of a nationalist composer, as he not only incorporated folk elements from his Czech homeland into his music but actively encouraged other composers to do the same with the music of their own lands. His nationalism was a musical philosophy—not just a political gesture. Interestingly, he spent roughly three years in the United States for the purpose of exploring American music. While there, he encouraged his students to explore American folk idioms such as African-American music, such as the spiritual along, with Native American music.


Antonín Leopold Dvořák (September 8, 1841–May 1, 1904) was a Czech composer. Following the nationalist example of Bedřich Smetana, Dvořák frequently employed aspects, specifically rhythms, of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia (then parts of the Austrian Empire and now constituting the Czech Republic). Dvořák’s own style has been described as “the fullest recreation of a national idiom with that of the symphonic tradition, absorbing folk influences and finding effective ways of using them.”

Dvořák displayed his musical gifts at an early age, being an apt student of violin playing from age 6. The first public performances of his works were in Prague in 1872 and, with special success, in 1873, when he was age 31. Seeking recognition beyond the Prague area, he first submitted a score of his First Symphony to a prize competition in Germany, but he did not win, and the manuscript, not returned, was lost until rediscovered many years later. Then in 1874 he first made a submission for the Austrian State Prize for Composition, including scores of two further symphonies and other works. Brahms, unbeknownst to Dvořák, was the leading member of the jury and was highly impressed. The prize was awarded to Dvořák in that year and again in 1876 and in 1877, when Brahms and the prominent critic Eduard Hanslick, also a member of the jury, made themselves known to him. Brahms recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who soon afterward commissioned what became the Slavonic Dances, Op. 46. These were highly praised by the Berlin music critic Louis Ehlert in 1878, the sheet music (of the original piano 4-hands version) had excellent sales, and Dvořák’s international reputation at last was launched.

Dvořák’s first piece of a religious nature, his setting of Stabat Mater, was premiered in Prague in 1880. It was very successfully performed in London in 1883, leading to many other performances in the United Kingdom and United States. In his career, Dvořák made nine invited visits to England, often conducting performances of his own works. His Seventh Symphony was written for London. After a brief conducting stint in Russia in 1890, Dvořák was appointed as a professor at the Prague Conservatory in 1891. In 1890–1891, he wrote his Dumky Trio, one of his most successful chamber music pieces. In 1892, Dvořák moved to the United States and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. While in the United States, Dvořák wrote his two most successful orchestral works. The Symphony From the New World spread his reputation worldwide.[3] His Cello Concerto is the most highly regarded of all cello concerti. Also, he wrote his American String Quartet, his most appreciated piece of chamber music. But shortfalls in payment of his salary, along with increasing recognition in Europe and an onset of homesickness, led him to leave the United States in 1895 and return to Bohemia.

Dvořák’s ten operas all have librettos in Czech and were intended to convey Czech national spirit, as were some of his choral works. By far the most successful of the operas is Rusalka. Among his smaller works, the seventh Humoresque and the song “Songs My Mother Taught Me” are also widely performed and recorded. He has been described as “arguably the most versatile . . . composer of his time.”

United States

Dvořák with his family and friends in New York in 1893. From left: his wife Anna, son Antonín, Sadie Siebert, Josef Jan KovařÍk, mother of Sadie Siebert, daughter Otilie, Antonín Dvořák
Figure 1. Dvořák with his family and friends in New York in 1893. From left: his wife Anna, son Antonín, Sadie Siebert, Josef Jan KovařÍk, mother of Sadie Siebert, daughter Otilie, Antonín Dvořák.

From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He began at a then-staggering $15,000 annual salary. Emanuel Rubin describes the Conservatory and Dvořák’s time there. The Conservatory had been founded by Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy and philanthropic woman, who made it open to women students as well as men and to blacks as well as whites, which was unusual for the times. Dvořák’s original contract provided for three hours a day of work, including teaching and conducting, six days a week, with four months’ vacation each summer. The Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression, depleted the assets of the Thurber family and other patrons of the Conservatory. In 1894, Dvořák’s salary was cut to $8,000 per year and moreover was paid only irregularly. The Conservatory was located at 126–128 East 17th Street but was demolished in 1911 and replaced by what is today a high school.

Dvořák’s main goal in America was to discover “American Music” and engage in it, much as he had used Czech folk idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in America in 1892, Dvořák wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of American music. He supported the concept that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of American music. He felt that through the music of Native Americans and African-Americans, Americans would find their own national style of music. Here Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, who later became one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional American spirituals.

In the winter and spring of 1893, Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl to tumultuous applause. Clapham writes that “without question this was one of the greatest triumphs, and very possibly the greatest triumph of all that Dvořák experienced” in his life, and when the Symphony was published, it was “seized on by conductors and orchestras” all over the world.

Two months before leaving for America, Dvořák had hired Josef Jan KovařÍk, who had just finished violin studies at the Prague Conservatory and was about to return to the United States, to serve as his secretary and to live with the Dvořák family. He had come from the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where his father, Jan Josef KovařÍk, was a schoolmaster. Dvořák decided to spend the summer of 1893 in Spillville, along with all his family. While there, he composed the String Quartet in F (the “American”) and the String Quintet in E-flat, as well as a Sonatina for violin and piano. He also conducted a performance of his Eighth Symphony at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that same year.

In the winter of 1894–1895, Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191, completed in February 1895. However, his partially unpaid salary, together with increasing recognition in Europe—he had been made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna—and a remarkable amount of homesickness made him decide to return to Bohemia. He informed Thurber that he was leaving. Dvořák and his wife left New York before the end of the spring term with no intention of returning.

Dvořák’s New York home was located at 327 East 17th Street, near the intersection of what is today called Perlman Place. It was in this house that both the B minor Cello Concerto and the New World Symphony were written within a few years. Despite protests from Czech President Václav Havel, among others, who wanted the house preserved as a historical site, it was demolished in 1991 to make room for a Beth Israel Medical Center residence for people with AIDS. To honor Dvořák, however, a statue of him was erected in nearby Stuyvesant Square.

Brahms continued to try to “clear a path for” Dvořák, “the only contemporary whom he considered really worthy.” While Dvořák was in America, Simrock was still publishing his music in Germany, and Brahms corrected proofs for him. Dvořák said it was hard to understand why Brahms would “take on the very tedious job of proofreading. I don’t believe there is another musician of his stature in the whole world who would do such a thing.”

German Requiem

This page describes the historical context of Brahms’s most famous work and the textual difference between it and a Requiem mass. Remember that the only portion of this piece on our playlist is the fourth movement, perhaps the best known of all the movements from the piece.


A German Requiem, To Words of the Holy Scriptures, Op. 45 (German: Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift) by Johannes Brahms, is a large-scale work for chorus, orchestra, and a soprano and a baritone soloist, composed between 1865 and 1868. It comprises seven movements, which together last 65 to 80 minutes, making this work Brahms’s longest composition. A German Requiem is sacred but non-liturgical, and unlike a long tradition of the Latin Requiem, A German Requiem, as its title states, is a Requiem in the German language.


Brahms’s mother died in February 1865, a loss that caused him much grief and may well have inspired Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms’s lingering feelings over Robert Schumann’s death in July 1856 may also have been a motivation, though his reticence about such matters makes this uncertain.

His original conception was for a work of six movements; according to their eventual places in the final version, these were movements 1–4 and 6–7. By the end of April 1865, Brahms had completed the first, second, and fourth movements. The second movement used some previously abandoned musical material written in 1854, the year of Schumann’s mental collapse and attempted suicide and of Brahms’s move to Düsseldorf to assist Clara Schumann and her young children.

Brahms completed all but what is now the fifth movement by August 1866. Johann Herbeck conducted the first three movements in Vienna on 1 December 1867. This partial premiere went poorly due to a misunderstanding in the timpanist’s score. Sections marked as pf were played as f or ff, essentially drowning out the rest of the ensemble in the fugal section of the third movement. The first performance of the six movements premiered in the Bremen Cathedral six months later on Good Friday, 10 April 1868, with Brahms conducting and Julius Stockhausen as the baritone soloist. The performance was a great success and marked a turning point in his career.

In May 1868, Brahms composed an additional movement, which became the fifth movement within the final work. The new movement, which was scored for soprano soloist and choir, was first sung in Zürich on 12 September 1868 by Ida Suter-Weber, with Friedrich Hegar conducting the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. The final, seven-movement version of A German Requiem was premiered in Leipzig on 18 February 1869 with Carl Reinecke conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus and soloists Emilie Bellingrath-Wagner and Franz Krükl.


Brahms assembled the libretto himself. In contrast to the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, which employs a standardized text in Latin, the text is derived from the German Luther Bible.

Brahms’s first known use of the title Ein deutsches Requiem was in an 1865 letter to Clara Schumann in which he wrote that he intended the piece to be “eine Art deutsches Requiem” (a sort of German Requiem). Brahms was quite moved when he found out years later that Robert Schumann had planned a work of the same name. German refers primarily to the language rather than the intended audience. Brahms told Carl Martin Reinthaler, director of music at the Bremen Cathedral, that he would have gladly called the work “Ein menschliches Requiem” (A human Requiem).

Although the Requiem Mass in the Roman Catholic liturgy begins with prayers for the dead (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”), A German Requiem focuses on the living, beginning with the text “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” from the Beatitudes. This theme—transition from anxiety to comfort—recurs in all the following movements except movements 4 and 7, the central one and the final one. Although the idea of the Lord is the source of the comfort, the sympathetic humanism persists through the work.

Brahms purposely omitted Christian dogma. In his correspondence with Carl Reinthaler, when Reinthaler expressed concern over this, Brahms refused to add references to “the redeeming death of the Lord,” as Reinthaler described it, such as John 3:16. In the Bremen performance of the piece, Reinthaler took the liberty of inserting the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah to satisfy the clergy.

Gustav Mahler

While Mahler made his career as an orchestral conductor and his compositions often received a mixed critical response in his lifetime, he is now viewed as an extremely influential composer in the transition between the Romantic and Modern eras.


Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper
Figure 1. Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper.

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860–18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th-century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect, which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945, the music was discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.

Born in humble circumstances, Mahler displayed his musical gifts at an early age. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler—who had converted to Catholicism to secure the post—experienced regular opposition and hostility from the antisemitic press. Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner and Mozart. Late in his life, he was briefly director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Mahler’s œuvre is relatively small; for much of his life, composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works are designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses, and operatic soloists. Most of his twelve symphonic scores are very large-scale works, often employing vocal soloists and choruses in addition to augmented orchestral forces. These works were often controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 3, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910. Some of Mahler’s immediate musical successors included the composers of the Second Viennese School, notably Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten are among later 20th-century composers who admired and were influenced by Mahler. The International Gustav Mahler Institute was established in 1955 to honor the composer’s life and work.

Antecedents and Influences

Mahler was a “late Romantic,” part of an ideal that placed Austro-German classical music on a higher plane than other types through its supposed possession of particular spiritual and philosophical significance. He was one of the last major composers of a line that includes, among others, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, and Brahms. From these antecedents Mahler drew many of the features that were to characterize his music. Thus, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came the idea of using soloists and a choir within the symphonic genre. From Beethoven, Liszt, and (from a different musical tradition) Berlioz came the concept of writing music with an inherent narrative or “programme” and of breaking away from the traditional four-movement symphony format. The examples of Wagner and Bruckner encouraged Mahler to extend the scale of his symphonic works well beyond the previously accepted standards, to embrace an entire world of feeling.

Early critics maintained that Mahler’s adoption of many different styles to suit different expressions of feeling meant that he lacked a style of his own; Cooke, on the other hand, asserts that Mahler “redeemed any borrowings by imprinting his [own] personality on practically every note” to produce music of “outstanding originality.” Music critic Harold Schonberg sees the essence of Mahler’s music in the theme of struggle, in the tradition of Beethoven. However, according to Schonberg, Beethoven’s struggles were those of “an indomitable and triumphant hero,” whereas Mahler’s are those of “a psychic weakling, a complaining adolescent who . . . enjoyed his misery, wanting the whole world to see how he was suffering.” Yet, Schonberg concedes, most of the symphonies contain sections in which Mahler the “deep thinker” is transcended by the splendor of Mahler the musician.


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